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Zucker’s First 100 Days

As Jeffrey Zucker was anointed the new CEO of NBC Universal at a town-hall meeting last week, his minions were no doubt listening carefully, noting each and every time Zucker and his boss, General Electric Chairman Jeffrey Immelt, name-checked senior NBCU brass.

After all, those shout-outs to USA Networks chief Bonnie Hammer; NBCU’s cable, digital and cross-network guru Jeff Gaspin; or NBCU TV West Coast President Marc Graboff may hold clues to who will be the winners and losers in the Zucker era.

Whatever Zucker does in making his first impression on the media giant, he’ll likely do it soon—as any new leader would in those initial 100 days before organizational entropy sets in. Look no further then Zucker’s former NBCU colleague David Zaslav, who took a hammer to Discovery Communications less than a month after taking the reins (see “Zaslav’s Vision for Growth,” p. 4).

The consensus is that Zucker will be true to the GE ethos of trying to wring profits from divisions while cutting their budgets. Imagine him turning his lieutenants upside down and shaking them until every last coin hits the floor.

But the real question is: Will Zucker be a company man or a visionary?

Consider some of his media counterparts. When Bob Iger took over at Disney after years of playing second fiddle to Chairman Michael Eisner, he quickly spruced up the Mouse House with watershed digital deals and reinvigorated programming over platforms from broadcast to broadband.

When Leslie Moonves became CEO of CBS, newly disentangled from Viacom, he made several strategic moves to put a new-media coat of paint on an old-media brand and watched his stock leap. (Moonves has expressed the desire before to have a film studio, and now that his rival Zucker has one, watch the CBS boss fulfill that dream.)

Even if Zucker does have the vision to bring some new-media luster to the Peacock, he’ll likely face some resistance from the stodgy ranks at GE. The new chief has some first-rate media and entertainment talent in key positions.

But, as one NBC vet joked last week, with all the GE veterans dug in throughout NBCU’s operations—from finance and new media to stations and sales—a discussion about programming can start to sound an awful lot like a number-crunching session at the aircraft engines division.

It’s hard to imagine Zucker turning to these guys for support at a time when smart, bold bets are needed to transform an old-media player into a new one. But he has a key patron in Immelt.

Remember, when outgoing NBCU chief Bob Wright took charge more than two decades ago after a stint running GE Financial Services, he seemed an unlikely candidate to create billions of dollars in value for a company venturing into a new-media play called cable—let alone preside over NBC during an enviably long run as the No. 1 broadcast network. But Immelt’s own predecessor, Jack Welch, invested his faith in Wright and guided him toward his long tenure.

Zucker is smart, infinitely ambitious and fiercely competitive, and he no doubt believes he has the Wright stuff—and then some—to transform NBCU as much as or more than the outgoing chairman did.

Immelt has already bet big on Zucker to be that guy. And with the GE chairman’s support, he just may make that major acquisition or strategic play that will be the gateway to growth.

But in these first 100 days, he’ll have to work hard to make his case heard over the roar of those GE engines.

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