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Zucker in Charge

NBC Universal President/CEO Jeff Zucker got the last laugh.

As the network's primetime dominance was eroding over the past few seasons, his detractors happily recounted the travails of the once proud peacock network.

According to his new boss, it was actually that performance under fire, when he was CEO of the NBCU TV Group, that iced Zucker's ascension to replace Bob Wright.

“The board and I particularly liked the way he handled tough times, never got down, always drove the company harder,” General Electric Chairman/CEO Jeffrey Immelt says.

So now Zucker, 41, inherits a company that finally is showing signs of a primetime turnaround thanks to a new NFL football contract and rookie drama Heroes.

Although fixing primetime is crucial, it is hardly Zucker's sole task of import. In his new role, he must also lead the race with the rest of the industry to monetize new media, learn the film and theme-park businesses on the fly, and make sure the company doesn't lose momentum in its television strongholds like cable, news and late night.

And he must do all of the above and more while continuing an ongoing and highly publicized cost-cutting initiative.

This is a restraining factor while Zucker looks to put all possible resources into production as the ownership of content becomes increasingly essential to a healthy bottom line.

Heady stuff, even for the former Today producer who has shot up the ranks so fast that others in and around Hollywood couldn't help lashing out at him over the years, a situation Zucker acknowledges and dismisses as insignificant.

But although Zucker may not command the same devotion from company followers as his longtime rival Leslie Moonves, president/CEO of CBS Corp., the new NBCU chief has plenty of support inside and outside his company.

Some believe that those who threw stones at Zucker were missing the bigger picture. Ultimately, he wasn't going to be judged by his GE corporate bosses on how successful he would be in finding the next Friends but on how effective a leader he would be in a new-media environment.

Zucker's relentless drive to succeed also played into Immelt's decision.

“Jeff is the most competitive person I know,” UTA agent Jay Sures says. “He is in it to win. He's the kind of guy who tries to beat you on the tennis court during the warm-up points.”

Zucker spoke with B&C's Ben Grossman about his immediate goals, long-term strategies, biggest challenges and the perception of him in the creative community.

What are your immediate goals in the new role?

I want to continue the momentum we have on the content side, especially in primetime, and, on the film side, to have a very strong summer. Those are the immediate goals, and obviously, we have some more strategic things that we are looking at on the digital side and the international side, but those will come over time.

Is there low-hanging fruit, areas of opportunity to attack right away?

Yeah. I think that's what we've had some success in doing over the last year. We've obviously been very vocal about attacking our cost structure, and we will continue to push on all of our operations and on our cost side, too.

Is fixing some of your lagging businesses, like first-run syndication or the station group, an immediate concern?

Not really. We are going to continue to invest in content, and that means our television studio and obviously at our film studio. It's just a matter of continuing to invest in owning as much of our content as possible.

What is the biggest misconception of NBC Universal right now?

There is not a full appreciation for how well most of the company is doing. Whether that's our cable entertainment or cable news properties, or Telemundo, or our news properties or late night, I don't think there's a full appreciation for that.

Is there a key to success at your cable businesses that you can take to other areas around the company?

I think we've had very solid leadership in place, on both the deal side and the programming side, and we've given them great autonomy. Those are things we will look to make sure are in place at each of our other divisions.

How will you go about the process of trying to figure out how to monetize new media?

We have a very strategic team focused on that, and obviously, one of the goals of the next year is for that team to put some real strategic thinking behind it.

But specifically, will you grow the new-media business through acquisition?

Yeah, I wouldn't rule it out. But I feel very good about the assets we have and think we can most utilize them.

Did the acquisition of iVillage [a $600 million purchase that has drawn lukewarm reviews both internally and externally] scare anyone at the company away from growth through that avenue?

No, I don't think so. I think we are continuing to integrate iVillage into the company. Don't forget, iVillage has only been a part of this company for six or seven months, and we are starting to take full advantage of that. But no, that doesn't scare anybody.

You had some tough words about YouTube's unwillingness to implement technology to protect your content. How strongly will you stay on that issue?

All I am trying to say is, it's not meant to go after any one organization; we just want to be compensated for that content.

Is Wal-Mart's new entrance into the sales of digital downloads for film and television content an opportunity for NBCU?

Sure, there is far more opportunity than there are challenges. It's just another example of how the world is changing and you can't stand pat.

So do you want to be in business with Wal-Mart soon?

Sure. We want to be in business with everyone; we want our content to be available everywhere.

Some companies and other networks have been lauded for leading the charge into the new-media world. Is there an advantage to being a first-mover right now in the space?

Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't. Sometimes there is an advantage to seeing how the dynamics of the marketplace are going to shake out. I don't think there is a hard and fast rule. A lot of people are chasing press releases, and that's the one thing I don't want us to do.

Does it bother you to still read descriptions of you as brash or being at odds with Hollywood?

I think it's not an accurate description of either the way I feel about Hollywood or the way Hollywood feels about me.

But is that portrayal a concern of yours?

I'm focused on doing the best job I can do, and I'm confident that anyone who knows me knows there is no better friend of content, producers or Hollywood.

How difficult will it be to back away even more from the television businesses with which you have been so intimately involved for so long?

I think I have given huge freedom to each of our television divisions over the last few years, and as I've taken on more of managerial role, I haven't been involved in the real day-to-day decisions of any of those units. So I think that's a process that's been well under way and will only continue now.

How involved have you been in greenlighting shows on the network?

I haven't been involved in greenlighting shows on the network in years.

What do you want to see at the network after next fall?

Continuing momentum. I'm not going to put numbers or positions on it; I just want to see continuing momentum.

You have said the film and theme-park businesses are where you need to learn the most, so do you have to go to boot camp to get up to speed in those areas?

I will spend more time involved in those enterprises, but I am completely confident in the teams in place in both of those places. I will spend whatever time is necessary to get up to speed, but I don't look at that as a concern.

Where do you want to put your imprint on this company?

I just want us to be a world-class content company and have great television products and great movies and great content and to make sure that our folks producing all that have the resources they need to continue to do so. At the end of the day, we are a content company, and making sure we have great content that is available in many different places is the key to our success.

How will you be judged internally a year from now?

Are our operations all performing and growing, and are we making progress in the digital and international worlds? I think those are the key metrics.