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NBC Affils Chair Unsurprised, But Will Miss Zucker

Related:Zucker Leaving NBC
Zucker Departure in Hands of Justic Dept., FCC

NBC affiliates board chairman Brian Lawlor saluted outgoing NBC Universal President/CEO Jeff Zucker for a long and mostly successful run atop the network, and for an exceptionally strong relationship with the affiliates board-and the affiliates body.

Lawlor said Zucker's attention to affiliate matters was "unprecedented," and his attendance and engagement at the annual affiliates board meeting was whole-hearted. "We had a really good working relationship with Jeff," said Lawlor from his Cincinnati base. "He was very involved with affiliate board matters. Our relationship with Jeff was fabulous, and I think we'll miss that."

Zucker announced his departure to NBC staff this morning. A blockbuster merger between NBC Universal and Comcast is of course before regulators in Washington; most following the regulatory proceedings appear confident the merger will go through. At that point, it's believed that Comcast will name Zucker's successor.

Multiple group chiefs with sizeable NBC affiliate holdings declined to comment on Friday's news, but general managers didn't seem terribly shaken by it. None claimed surprise upon hearing of Zucker's departure; one affiliate general manager who asked not to be named called Zucker's eventual departure "an open secret."

"I can't say we were shocked," says Lawlor. "Comcast has a strategy and vision for running NBC, and having their own leadership will be real important."

Lawlor stresses that primetime is but part of the network equation--albeit a big part, as a thriving prime serves up maximum viewers to stations' lucrative late local news. NBC's cable properties are big money-makers, says Lawlor, NBC News has remained best in class throughout Zucker's reign, and the sports division "is the best in the network business."

"His legacy has been established," Lawlor adds. "The one challenge has been primetime performance the last couple years."

Some local GMs, who've gotten by without a strong primetime performance for years, said they're more focused on their local operations than an executive shakeup--even a major one such as the network chief's departure--at 30 Rock. "Day in and day out, I'm just trying to run a local TV station," says WHEC Rochester VP/General Manager Arnold Klinsky.

NBC's decision to move Jay Leno to primetime last year was seen as a bold move--but turned out to be a ratings and revenue draining disaster for the affiliates. Yet many on the affiliate side believe Zucker is leaving on something of a positive note, based on NBC's strong approach to the fall season, in the form of big-budget, big-name rookie programs. "Jeff Zucker did a lot of great things for the network," said one GM. "[Affiliates] feel good right now, and that's to his credit."

But, during Hill vetting of the Comcast/NBCU deal early this year, Zucker and former NBC affiliate board chair Michael Fiorile did have a bit of a disagreement over an FCC firewall between retransmission consent and affiliation discussions.

At a hearing back in February, Fiorile testified that structural separations needed to be in place, enforced by the FCC, between those negotiations. He said Comcast/NBCU would have the ability to withhold affiliation or bypass the stations if they could not agree on retrans.

Zucker had said he did not think such structural regs were necessary.

Eventually, the affils and NBC got together on retrans safeguards that Comcast agreed to abide by, including that "Comcast Cable Systems will not link or engage in decision-making with NBCU with respect to retransmission consent negotiations with non-NBCU Stations." Comcast has called that agreement legally binding.

Zucker's legacy will be affected by how new shows such as The Event and Undercovers perform in the coming weeks and months. "It's clear that NBC has stepped up its investment, and that's what we're seeing this week," says Lawlor of the early ratings returns. "We feel really good after Week 1, but it's early."