Jeff Zucker undoubtedly is one of the more polarizing figures in the television business in recent years. During his tenure, he built many parts of NBCUniversal—including its prominent cable business—into a giant and envied success story after his meteoric rise at the company. However, he was at the same time fundamentally unable to turn around the broadcast network’s primetime fortunes and saw NBC through a damaging and public mess in late night—two situations many in the media and blogosphere seemed to take sheer delight in chronicling.
But since Comcast decided to get out of the Jeff Zucker business, he has turned his attention to launching a new daytime show featuring his old pal Katie Couric that will debut next fall. The syndicated talker from ABC returns Couric to the comfort zone and better fit of a more relaxed and personal environment—the one in which she thrived at the top-rated Today show before a challenging five-year run at CBS’ Evening News that eventually produced a solid show but will be mainly remembered for a failure to live up to what were probably largely unrealistic expectations from a ratings standpoint.
Over breakfast at the Core Club in New York City, Zucker for the first time eagerly outlined specific plans for Couric’s show as ABC takes it out to stations. And then when talk turned to his reputation in Hollywood and what went wrong, a very pensive Zucker gradually painted a self-portrait of a Hollywood outsider who admittedly didn’t do enough to ingratiate himself in the town, something he admits came back to haunt him down the road. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
How did the new show come together?
Just a complete confluence of timing. As I was leaving NBC at the beginning of this year, Katie was beginning to think seriously about what she would do next. And the timing of those two events just coincidentally happened at the same time.
Had you been talking before those two things happened?
Remember, I didn’t set my exit time. It just happened that as I left NBC she was thinking about what’s next before her contract was up in June and we started talking. She asked for some advice from me, and that evolved. If the Comcast deal had closed six months earlier or a year later, it probably wouldn’t have happened. It really was a function of timing. One of the things I did miss about the last 10 or 12 years was having some kind of actual role in production. It’s where I spent the first part of my life, and I enjoy it immensely. So helping her launch this was something that appealed to me.
Did you think she was going to end up doing this?
I thought it was the most likely scenario for her because I think this genre can best utilize her talents. It’s the right move for her at the right time. She did the Today show incredibly successfully for 15 years, she did the Evening News for five. Her skill set, her personality and her interests are best suited for a show where she can be herself.
Was she playing out of position at CBS?
I think this will better utilize her talents.
Did the media attention leading up to her decision help build buzz?
I don’t think that was necessarily helpful. Katie has always lived a very public existence both personally and professionally. There is always a tremendous amount of attention on whatever she is thinking about. What kind of syndication marketplace are you entering? One of the reasons this made sense for Katie is I do think there is an opening in the marketplace. With Oprah’s departure there’s a lot of great shows out there, and nobody’s ever going to be Oprah again, but I think there is a place for somebody with Katie’s talent. I don’t think that hole has been filled yet. I don’t think there’s been anybody like Katie who has come into syndication in a long time. So the opportunity to bring her talent and skill set to that genre is a unique one.
What are your thoughts on Anderson’s early numbers?
I think it’s too early to draw any conclusions from those numbers.
What’s the ideal time slot for Katie’s show?
We are looking at this as an afternoon lead-in to early local news. It will play best at 3 or 4.
Will you get a lot of those slots in year one or build up to it?
The ABC owned and operated stations have already committed to 3 p.m. in their markets, I think that’s where they think it plays best. There hasn’t really been a program like this that has been as compatible with local news in a long time. Especially with Oprah’s departure, for a local TV station it’s a unique opportunity. I think we’re hopeful that’s how local TV stations will see it as well.
Where are you in the process?
Good conversations have begun, and the ABC sales team is actively talking to stations as we speak.
Are you and Katie involved in that?
Certainly to the degree that we can be helpful, we are.
What does that mean?
That process has just begun. We’ll do anything and everything that’s required to make it a success.
What’s a typical hour going to look like?
We are going to do the show live, be as timely and topical as possible. We’re not doing a news show, but hopefully it will be off the news and off the conversation. Will there be newsmakers? Sure. Will there be high-profile guests? Sure. But this will not be Nightline.
Will she be in production five days a week?
Four, and as necessary. We won’t be covering the news, but will be talking about what the news is and what the conversation is. The real backbone of this show will be that Katie’s interested in a huge variety of topics. She’s a single mom who has two teenaged girls, who is dating, who is thinking about all the issues that parents, girlfriends are dealing with, and those are all the topics that will be relevant to this show. Parenting, health, being a girlfriend, dealing with getting older, dealing with your kids, dealing with cyberspace. I think you’ll see the Katie that was so exciting on the Today show, who could ask the questions you wanted to ask and also have a great time. It will be serious, it will be fun, it will be poignant, it will be silly, I think Katie’s unique ability to run that gamut is what sets her apart. Again, that’s the Katie you haven’t seen for the last five years, but one who was as good as anyone when she was doing that.
But will the audience remember that?
That’s our job. First of all, it’s only been five years. But I think that’s our job to remind them, and then I think they will see it.
Will each show be single-topic?
Both single-topic and multiple-topic. We don’t want to be locked into one format.
If she launched last week, what was the ideal first show? Casey Anthony’s parents?
I was just going to say that—I think what Dr. Phil did this week was quite good. That kind of topic certainly would have been the kind of thing you see on Katie’s show.
How’s the hunt for an executive producer going?
We’re in the process of looking for a showrunner. I don’t want to lock in a timetable, but we’re looking for someone right now.
Once the showrunner gets settled in, what will the producing structure be?
I’m excited to be a part of it and make sure it’s successful. My relationship with Katie, which dates back 20 years, gives us a great opportunity to try and create something exciting. So I will be very involved in doing that. At the same time, obviously we are looking for a showrunner as well.
Will you be in the control room every day at the beginning?
Yes, or on the floor.
How long until you are not?
I don’t know, I’m not putting any timetable on it.
What is the setup?
With Disney/ABC Domestic Television, led by Janice Marinelli, they are syndicating it, selling it, and we are thrilled to be in business with them.
So the show is totally produced by your entity?
Which is called?
We don’t have a name yet.
That’s the joint venture with Katie?
Yes, it is.
Is Ed Wilson still involved?
Yes, he is consulting with us.
Are you involved with anything else she is doing with ABC?
No, always happy to be a sounding board, but I have no other involvement with her and ABC.
Now that you have stepped away day to day, is anything catching your eye in the business?
I think when you take a step back you notice how prevalent new technology is in the entire media space, and just how it dominates every conversation. We knew that, but when you are able to step back, you see how prevalent it is. That’s the only real thing I’ve noticed in a bigger way.
Are you more comfortable now talking about things from your past?
There are always things you would do differently. I don’t have any regrets about things I have said or done, but there are always things you would do differently. All I have ever tried to do is try to bring to the forefront things that are sometimes difficult to talk about.
So did you get in trouble for calling it like you saw it?
I don’t think I got in trouble as much as made some people uncomfortable. And I understand that.
Do you miss it?
I worked every day of my life for 25 years and having this opportunity to step back has been nice. There are parts of it I definitely miss, and parts I of course don’t miss. It’s a very exciting business, and there are parts of that you always want to be a part of.
What don’t you miss?
It’s nice to take a break from the daily spotlight. Those are very public positions, and we live in a world with a huge spotlight on it. It’s nice to step out of that, even for a little while.
What do you think of Conan’s move to cable?
I think Conan’s immensely talented and there will always be a place for immensely talented people.
I think the analogy of what you just said there would be (former NFL running back) Gale Sayers, the way he dodged tackles. So could you argue that the NBC thing—after all the drama—has worked out for the best for NBC, with Jay back at 11:30, Fallon doing well in Conan’s spot and Conan not on a rival broadcast network?
It was just a very unfortunate way that the whole thing unfolded, but I think the NBC lineup is in very good shape.
So do you take any solace in that?
The job that I had, you always had to do what was in the best interest of the company. We all, myself included, got hurt in the way that whole drama unfolded, and a lot of good people got hurt in the process. Thankfully, NBC’s late-night lineup is in very good shape, even though it was a very difficult period.
What about the mornings? Should CBS really shake things up and go in another direction?
I think that when you are in third place you have to try something different. They haven’t asked for my advice, but I would say competing against the Today show and GMA is not a winning proposition.
So what should they do?
Something different. You could do all news, you could do politics, you could do talk. You could do local.
What would you do?
I’ll save that in case they call.
You standing right by the phone?
Who should buy Hulu?
I think it’s a fantastic asset, tremendous value created in about five years, I think it could be a great asset for a lot of companies that are looking at it, any of the technology companies. I think it makes a lot of sense for Google, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, I think all of them are potentially fantastic owners of it.
What do you think will happen?
I honestly have no idea.
Are you allowed to talk about Comcast?
I am allowed….
Anything surprise you about what they’ve done?
I think they are incredibly smart people, and the last thing they need is me analyzing them from the sidelines.
Did the Ebersol thing surprise you?
I think Dick is a true giant and real genius, and I think any organization is better off with him than without.
So, were you surprised by what happened?
I don’t feel comfortable analyzing any of the decisions the new team makes. They deserve their right to make all of those decisions.
In an interview at Promax, you took responsibility once again for things like the late-night debacle and not developing another hit after Friends. Is there a feeling you want to come out and have a clean slate after NBC?
I’ve always said that the buck stops at the top, and I always took responsibility for things that didn’t go right. And just as you get credit for things that go well, I’ve never shied away from taking responsibility for being in charge. But I also don’t think there is a lot of value in looking back because life moves on, time goes on and the world is changing so fast it’s on to the next thing.
Someone who knows you well told me back in January that Jeff is going to take a year or two away, repair his image and then go into politics. Does your image need repairing?
I hope not.
Were you fired?
There was a change in ownership….
In writing about your exit from NBCUniversal,The Miami Heraldcalled you a Hollywood outsider. Are you?
One of the things I never was able to transcend well enough was the idea that I was a news guy from New York. And I wish I had done a better job of that. And so in that respect, I was probably a bit of a Hollywood outsider.
Why didn’t you do a better job of that?
There was never a conscious decision that I didn’t want to be a Hollywood insider.
Then why didn’t you just play the game?
I think I was a journalist first. And when you are a journalist, you question a lot of things. I think when I came to Hollywood, I questioned some of the ways things were done. That was seen as a threat to a few, and I did not fully appreciate how that was perceived.
Do you wish you would have done it differently?
Obviously. I don’t have any regrets, but in hindsight there are things I would have handled differently.
With things like the maligned tenure of Ben Silverman and the late-night situation—did your reputation actually hurt the company in that people were harder on NBC because they didn’t like you?
There were some in the Hollywood community that piled on and took unfair shots at the company because they didn’t like some of the things I said or the decisions I made, and that was very unfortunate for the company. But I continue to be incredibly proud of the company we put together and the job we did at every aspect of the company—other than our inability to fix our primetime.
I asked you at the beginning does your image need repairing, you said I hope not, but since then we’ve talked about a lot of things that look like an image that needs repairing. Do you need to fix your reputation or relationships in Hollywood?
I love Hollywood. I hope to continue working there. I don’t think I’m de! ned by what some people in Hollywood’s perception of me is. But even with those folks, I can always do a better job.
Am I aware that there are people in Hollywood who don’t like me? Of course I am. I arrived in Hollywood as an outsider, and I asked some questions and made some decisions that were unpopular. I challenged the status quo, and sometimes that didn’t sit well with people. I also look back at that time and acknowledge that if I had to do it over, there are certainly things I would do differently. I think we all look back on things we have done in the past and, with the passage of time and experience, wish we could have done some of them differently. Luckily, despite all of that, some of my closest relationships in life were forged in Hollywood, and those remain incredibly important to me.
What do you want to do after you get Katie’s show off the ground? Is this politics thing all just BS?
No, I’m interested in politics.
What does that mean?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to go into politics. The guy who launched Jerry Springer just got elected to Congress, so maybe we could start a trend.
Do you want to be a corporate CEO again?
I think if the right opportunity were there. Those are very hard jobs to land, but if the right opportunity were there, I would certainly be interested.
Has anyone reached out to you?
I’ve had a number of very interesting conversations.
What do you want to do? Do you want to go to work every day?
At some point you can’t play golf and tennis every day anymore. Yeah, I would like to make sure Katie’s show is a success and then figure out what’s next.
E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman
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