Jeff Zucker, former president and CEO of NBC Universal, spoke to Drexel students Oct. 12 about the accomplishments and controversy surrounding his long career in the television industry.
During the talk, which was sponsored by the Kal and Lucille Rudman Institute for Entertainment Industry Studies, Zucker allowed students to ask candid questions about his public feud with Conan O’Brien, his break from NBC and his upcoming talk show featuring Katie Couric.
The event also included a discussion of Zucker’s influential career at NBC, where he became the youngest executive producer of the “Today” show at age 26. By the end of his time at NBC, Zucker had oversight of the entire NBC Universal empire, including: NBC network, Bravo, SyFy, Universal Pictures, Universal Parks and Resorts, as well as many other networks and online platforms.
Karen Curry, executive director for the Rudman Institute and longtime friend of Zucker, invited the television tycoon to speak with Drexel students after running into him by chance earlier this past May.
“I’ve had a long relationship with Karen Curry,” Zucker said. “We worked together for a long time at NBC News, and when I ran into her six months ago for the first time in a long time, she told me what she was doing and asked me if I would consider coming down.”
The conversation began with Curry asking Zucker about his experience in the television industry before opening up to the audience for questions.
“I thought it was a good-sized crowd. I thought Jeff was very candid and very open about his career and also funny, which was great,” Curry said. “And I thought the questions were terrific. I was quite impressed with the questions from the audience, and that’s always a great thing.”
Zucker prefaced the question portion of the talk with an invitation to “ask me anything you want. I’ll even answer them. It can be personal, professional — I’ll answer anything you want.”
Students inquired about his past business decisions such as the “supersizing” of the Thursday night lineup on NBC, where shows were increased in length to 40 minutes. In addition, the decision to sell the rights to the show “Friday Night Lights” to DirecTV.
Mairin McKinlay, a senior television major, went to hear Zucker speak after learning about the talk through an email sent to her Drexel account.
“He was executive producer of the ‘Today’ show by 26, which I think is what all of us pretend that we strive for but don’t actually expect it,” McKinlay said. “He definitely seems like new school but also kind of understands about how the old school worked, and I think that’s how he got a lot accomplished.”
Curry wasted no time in asking Zucker about some of the more controversial decisions made during his 26-year career at NBC, such as the decision to move “The Jay Leno Show” from the 10 p.m. weeknight time slot to 11:35 p.m., bumping “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” to 12:05 a.m. The move resulted in decreased viewership for both shows and was considered a failure. Zucker, who was criticized for the decision, playfully replied “next” to her question, garnering a laugh from the audience, before answering seriously.
“I don’t regret that we tried it,” Zucker said. “I regret that it didn’t work.”
The decision ultimately resulted in O’Brien quitting his show in protest and leaving the network for a new project at TBS.
“It was a very painful episode for all. In my 26 years at NBC, the most unfortunate thing that happened was the way that the 10:00 and 11:35 shows failed and the fallout from them. It was a public soap opera, and I tried to do the right thing by Conan … he made us at NBC into punching bags, and so I tried to do the right thing, but we all got hurt.”
Zucker, who had known O’Brien since they attended Harvard together during their undergraduate years, expressed disappointment over the ordeal but said he didn’t let the criticism bother him.
“We work in a very public business, so criticism is a byproduct of that. You can’t avoid it, and you have to know that it comes with the territory,” Zucker said. “And criticism, often from folks who really have no real knowledge of what they’re writing or talking about, is really not something that I let bother me.”
Earlier this year, Philadelphia-based Comcast bought out NBC. Zucker left NBC in February when the merger was complete, acknowledging that the departure was not by choice.
“The company was sold, and the new management wanted its own management in place,” Zucker said. “That’s what happens when most companies are bought, so it didn’t really surprise me, and it wouldn’t have made sense for me to work under a new philosophy after spending 25 years under a different one. It was kind of a natural ending, in that respect.”
After his departure from NBC, Zucker partnered up with Couric to work together on a new talk show planned to start September 2012 on ABC.
“The timing, it really was just serendipitous. At the time I became available, Katie Couric was also becoming available, so we talked and decided to try and recreate hopefully some of that magic that we had on the ‘Today’ show,” Zucker said. “There’s this opening in the marketplace if you think about the departure of Oprah, not that anyone’s really going to be able to replace Oprah, but I still think there’s this void and this opportunity, and hopefully that’s something we’re going to take advantage of.”
Despite moving on to new projects, Zucker said he still remembers his time at NBC fondly.