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UBS Conference: Zucker Regrets NBC Prime Problems

NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker, who will be leaving the company when Comcast assumes control, accepted responsibility for NBC’s failures in primetime.

Speaking at a session at the 38th annual UBS Global Media and Communications Conference Wednesday in New York that was as much This Is Your Life as Squawk Box, Zucker recounted his career and said along with all of the company’s success, his regret was the performance of the Peacock network on his watch.

“Obviously it was my responsibility and I didn’t get that right. I didn’t find the right people, find the right shows, and that was my responsibility. I never got the team right, until recently,” Zucker said.

He added that of the executive leadership team at NBCU, he put together about 80% of the people who will continue to run the company. “I got almost all of them right. The one place I didn’t get it right was NBC Entertainment.”

But Zucker added that now, NBC Entertainment and primetime represent a very small part of NBC Universal from a financial point of view.

“NBC primetime is 5% of our bottom line, but it’s 105% of our perception,” he said. “From a business standpoint, it was a deminimus part of our bottom line... but my ability to get it fixed has attracted all the headlines. It’s probably the biggest regret I have as I move on.”

Zucker noted that NBC Universal has been transformed. When he began working there in 1986, it was a domestically focused broadcaster. In the last five years, it has become a cable network company, with two-thirds of the company’s bottom line coming from cable assets.

He credited his predecessor, Bob Wright, for gathering those assets and said they were “turbocharged” under his own management.

“NBC is incredibly important. Broadcasting is in my blood, but the heart of the company is the cable networks,” he said.

Zucker also put the criticism he’s gotten from NBC’s problems into perspective. “Personally, I’ve struggled with health issues,” he said, recounting his battles with colon cancer at the young ages of 31 and 34. “That’s painful... I know what’s important. I have perspective. I’m happy to be alive today. If people want to criticize me for our inability to fix NBC primetime, that’s OK.”

Looking ahead Zucker said that dealing with digital opportunities and challenges is the key for companies like NBCU over the next five years.

Zucker famously once said that media companies couldn’t afford to trade analog dollars for digital dimes.

“The industry has made progress. We’re up to digital quarters at this point. We’ve got a long way to go. The challenge for media companies is how do you take it from digital quarters to digital 50-cent pieces to digital dollars or higher?”

He added that the pace of change is accelerating.

“The iPad didn’t exist 18 months ago. It’s changed everything,” he said. “The rate of change in the next 12 months, 24 months is going to be incredible.”

During the UBS session, Joint Global Head of TMT Investment Banking Aryeh Bourkoff took Zucker through his days starting from his boyhood growing up in Florida when he wanted to grow up to be a tennis player, quarterback for the Dolphins or a sportswriter with the Herald to his rivalry with Conan O’Brien at Harvard.

Zucker noted that the essay he wrote while applying to Harvard was about his worries about the future of newspapers in light of changing lifestyles and the advent of cable TV.

They also talked about how not getting into Harvard Law School led to Zucker accepting a job as an Olympics researcher at NBC, which in turn led to the Today show, and the rest of his journey to the top of the corporate ladder.

Bourkoff even showed a video on Zucker featuring Katie Couric, CNBC’s Mark Hoffman, Jim Kramer (another Harvard Crimson editor) and Ron Meyer of Universal.

Speaking about what comes next, Zucker, who ran for president of his high school using the slogan “The Little Man with Big Ideas,” said he was interested in politics. “I do believe in public service," but he added, “it’s not something I’m thinking about today, but it is something I would think about.”

When the session was over, Zucker commented, “I feel like I’ve been to my funeral.” He said this was a “bittersweet” time for him because he’d spent all of his working life at NBC. “I’ve been incredibly lucky and fortunate to have an incredible seat at NBCU.” But he added, “I am excited about the opportunity to work somewhere else. What I’m going to do, I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it.”