Jeffrey Zucker is on a tear. It's early September, and the president of General Electric Co.'s (GE ) NBC Universal Television Group is gearing up for the new season. He has been at his desk at NBC's New York office since 7 a.m., chatting up Katie Couric and Matt Lauer at the Today Show and making calls to execs in New York and Burbank, Calif. The 39-year-old executive has spent his entire career at NBC, but he's facing his biggest test yet: a season without the hit show Friends, at a time when rival networks are gunning for NBC. The brash Zucker shows no signs of worry, though. "We've been No. 1 so long that the only news in town is that we're under attack," he says. "I get that. But there's a reason why advertisers gave us more money than any other network last year."
With his track record at NBC, it's no wonder Zucker is so cocky. As a 26-year-old executive producer for the Today Show in '92, he resurrected its ratings with gimmicks such as outdoor rock concerts. After being named president of NBC Entertainment in 2000, Zucker kept the network ahead of the pack by airing eyeball-eating contestants on the gross-out show Fear Factor, squeezing extra years out of the Friends crew, and signing Donald Trump for the reality show The Apprentice. The Zucker era has produced a hefty spike in operating earnings for the NBC network, from $532 million the year he took over to $870 million in 2003. When NBC merged with Vivendi Universal (V ), Zucker's responsibilities, which already included NBC's cable channels, were expanded to include TV production as well as the USA, Sci-Fi, and Trio cable channels.
In a post-Friends world, however, Zucker is in a much tighter race. Last season, NBC scratched out a narrow 3/10 of a ratings-point lead over Fox among the 18-to-49-year-old viewers whom advertisers crave -- proof that the network could use a barrel of fresh hits to keep its lead this season. And NBC's newest shows have been disappointments so far. Friends spin-off Joey, starring Matt LeBlanc, opened to solid but unspectacular ratings. The jury is still out on animated sitcom Father of the Pride. Even the mighty Donald is weakening: The Apprentice's ratings for the first episode were down 27% from last season among 18-to-49-year-olds, according to MediaWeek's Programming Insider. Zucker says ratings are often off in September.
NBC is still No. 1, but as rival networks begin to roll out their fall schedules, the Peacock is getting squeezed on all sides. Fox has scheduled its hot teen drama The O.C. against Joey. And CBS has scheduled its new crime drama CSI: New York against NBC's perennial hit Law & Order on Wednesdays. Zucker's bosses will probably be watching carefully to see if the young executive can fend off the assault. Zucker is considered a likely successor to NBC Universal Chairman and CEO Bob Wright, 61, who could retire in a few years. "Given his age and accomplishments, Jeff has to be one of the lead candidates," says Ron Meyer, chief of Universal's film studio. A failure this season, however, could be a black mark.
Zucker is certain that his tried-and-true game plan will come through for him. He seeks out shows that appeal to 18-to-49-year-olds and those with incomes of $75,000 or more. Then he promotes them relentlessly. This season he launched several new shows more than two weeks before his rivals, playing off NBC's heavily watched Olympics coverage, which featured endless commercials for NBC's fall season.
Promotion is a Zucker trademark. When Friends and Frasier were about to go off the air, the network ran numerous prime-time specials to hype the finales. It worked: Frasier had its best showing in the ratings since 2000, and the Friends finale was second only to the 2004 Super Bowl in drawing viewers. Even when he gets beat, Zucker fiercely defends the NBC franchise. When Fox (FOX ) hustled its boxing reality show The Next Great Champ on the air ahead of NBC's The Contender, Zucker publicly lambasted Fox for stealing the idea. "They used to be innovators, and now they're imitators," he said, setting off a firestorm of protest. Never mind that NBC's own Last Comic Standing is a comedy version of Fox's American Idol. "Those are different," says Zucker. "We did not steal a show that was someone else's idea and rush it out ahead of them." Fox network President Gail Berman responded: "No one can claim sole ownership to an entire area."
Zucker has always been ultracompetitive. As a boy in North Miami, Fla., he hated losing at any sport. "When we played tennis, he had to get the best tennis coach in the city so he wouldn't be embarrassed," recalls childhood friend Ken Bernstein. Zucker went on to become a top-ranked tennis player in Florida, says Bernstein. The 5-foot, 6-inch Zucker also served as president of his sophomore, junior, and senior classes, running on the slogan "The little man with the big ideas."
Too small to pursue his fantasy of playing football for the Miami Dolphins, Zucker took to writing local sports stories for The Miami Herald. He continued his writing career as an undergraduate at Harvard University, where he covered sports for The Harvard Crimson. He later became president of the publication. It was at Harvard that Zucker first met Conan O'Brien, now an NBC late-night host, who worked for humor magazine the Harvard Lampoon. As a prank, O'Brien's staff stole all the Crimson issues one day before they could be delivered. Zucker called the cops. "My first meeting with Jeff Zucker was in handcuffs, with a Cambridge police officer reading me my rights," says O'Brien.
That combative nature has fueled Zucker's staggeringly quick climb to the top at NBC. After failing to get into Harvard Law School, he delayed his legal studies at the University of Virginia to do research for NBC's 1988 Seoul Olympics coverage. He was recruited to the Today Show in 1989 and in 1992 was named executive producer. More recently it was Zucker who nabbed The Apprentice. "ABC had us -- but were nickeling and diming us," says Trump, a co-owner of the show. "Jeff locked us in a room until we had a deal."
There was no easy way around Zucker's toughest opponent: colon cancer. Diagnosed at age 31, he had a large part of his colon removed, then endured more than a year of chemotherapy. He was so determined not to be sidelined by the disease that he scheduled his chemo on Fridays so he could be back at his desk each Monday. Zucker's cancer is in remission, but he still thinks about its impact. "It put my life into perspective," he says. "I want to win and win honorably. But heck, it's only television." Today, Zucker is careful to make time for his wife and three children and often blows off steam by playing golf and tennis.
Back in his New York office, Zucker is focused on winning in the ratings this season. He hasn't pulled out all his tricks yet. For example, NBC is preparing a fourth version of Law & Order, called Trial by Jury, which likely won't air until early next year.
"We're like the New York Yankees," Zucker says. "In the end, we're always on top." Maybe so. But he'll need a few home runs to maintain NBC's No. 1 spot in this year's ratings -- not to mention his own meteoric rise.
By Ronald Grover in New York