CEO Zucker vows to take NBC Uni 'to next level'

Primetime, new media are focal points

NEW YORK -- Continuing the primetime ratings turnaround at NBC and expanding revenue streams in the digital age are among the key priorities for Jeff Zucker, who was named CEO of NBC Universal on Tuesday.

NBC Uni and its parent General Electric made the change at the top of the entertainment company official early in the day, unveiling the promotion of Zucker, 41, to the post of president and CEO. The move had been in the works for weeks.

Zucker succeeds Bob Wright, 63, who immediately drops his title of CEO of NBC Uni but will remain a vice chairman of GE, a post in which his current contract runs until early 2008. Wright will remain chairman of NBC Uni's internal board until May, with GE chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who has been sitting on the board, then taking over that role.

Related story: Creativity, focus appeal to Immelt

Zucker will continue to report to Wright and then to Immelt, but Immelt made clear Tuesday that Zucker, effective immediately, is the top guy at NBC Uni and the person in charge.

"Jeff Zucker is a terrific talent and the right person to guide NBC Universal on the next stage of its growth," Immelt said during a conference call with reporters. The GE chief emphasized that Zucker will be in charge of all day-to-day operations. GE controls 80% of NBC Uni, with Vivendi owning the other 20%.

Immelt added that he feels the entertainment arm has "real business momentum" and believes that "the future for NBCU is bright."

Similarly, Zucker said the company is "well positioned for future growth" and promised to "take NBC Universal to the next level."

Asked about key priorities, Zucker said he wants to "continue the momentum we have rediscovered on the NBC primetime side" and make the firm's "great content available on as many platforms as possible and getting paid for it."

He also said that the NBC 2.0 initiative has shown good results and will continue as the company tries to keep costs aligned with business trends and emerging growth opportunities. "That's a never-ending process," he said.

Asked about his approach to online companies that use entertainment content on their sites without licensing deals, Zucker said his team has issued take-down notices as they have seen fit and feels they have been more aggressive than industry peers.

Zucker's previous post of CEO of the NBC Universal Television Group will not be filled. Immelt said Zucker got that position as a test of his ability to run an expanded portfolio. "Now, there can be a leaner way" to run things, the GE boss added, without providing specifics.

While Zucker signaled he will not be as hands-on in NBC network issues as in the past, it remained unclear how much change the network would see.

Key Zucker lieutenants Jeff Gaspin and Marc Graboff are expected to expand their turf. Gaspin heads the fast-growing cable and digital content initiatives as president of NBC Uni Cable Entertainment, digital content and cross-network strategy; Graboff is Zucker's right-hand man in overseeing all of NBC Uni's West Coast business and administrative operations as president of NBC Universal Television, West Coast.

Additionally, NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly, who seemed to have been on thin ice at times but has been shored up by the improvements to NBC's schedule, is in negotiations for a new deal. Sources said Reilly has been looking to take oversight of NBC Uni's in-house production company, NBC Universal TV Studio, which produces NBC's hottest series, "Heroes" and "The Office."

Despite persistent rumors about a rift between Reilly and NBC Uni TV president Angela Bromstad, observers cautioned that a scenario in which Reilly and Bromstad report to Graboff looks more likely.

NBC News under Steve Capus will remain under Zucker's wing, as will NBC Sports & Olympics under Dick Ebersol. There are no changes to the reporting structures, according to representatives.

Zucker said he expects to make organizational announcements soon but emphasized that he has all his divisional heads in place, including Universal Studios president Ron Meyer, and trusts their expertise.

"I have a great team in place in every one of our divisions," he said. "I will look to them to lead, but help and push where needed. I will not be as hands-on at any (units) unless it's called for."

His biggest immediate learning needs are in the film and theme parks businesses, said Zucker, areas in which he hasn't been as intimately involved. "I'm incredibly fortunate to have Ron Meyer at my side, who is both a colleague and a friend," Zucker told reporters, adding that Meyer's leadership makes him comfortable he will get a better handle on the film business.

On the call, Meyer was asked about how Universal will deal with escalating film costs.

"My goal is to make hits," Meyer said. "Besides that, we're always looking at prices and who we're paying and how efficient we're spending on our movies. (So) we have no mandate to make fewer movies, but we clearly are looking into our operations, looking at ways of being more efficient. ... We do that all the time."

Asked about a potential scaling back in film production, Zucker said there are no plans to do so. He added that NBC Uni also is investing more in new TV productions this year.

However, Zucker predicted that the film business will see "more changes in the next five years than in the last 50 years," adding that he will work with his film leaders to "figure out the right (business) models."

Meyer later commented to a reporter that "Jeff is the right choice" to lead NBC Uni.

Added the Universal president: "He's been in the creative trenches, so he understands what we've gone through and what we will go through. Frankly, I'm excited about what the future will be."

As for Wright, Meyer said: "Bob has been a great boss. Bob pulls no punches. When he doesn't agree with you and you're not delivering what he expects of you, he hits you between the eyes with it. It's in some ways jarring and in some ways refreshing."

A member of the Uni executive corps who declined to be identified said Zucker "has been part of the organization for 20 years and has grown up in the system, (and) it would have been a mistake for them to go on the outside."

As CEO of the NBC Universal Television Group since 2005, Zucker has overseen the company's TV programming and distribution operations, which account for two-thirds of the company's profit.

Before that, Zucker had served as president of the NBC Entertainment, News & Cable Group. Before that, he was president of NBC Entertainment.

Zucker is a five-time Emmy winner and served as executive producer of the "Today" show, which he turned into a hugely profitable TV program.

Wright took the helm of NBC Universal in May 2004 when NBC merged with Vivendi Universal Entertainment. Before that, he had served as president and CEO of NBC since September 1986 and was promoted to chairman and CEO in June 2001.

CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves, who often sparred with Zucker when they both were more day-to-day with the television networks, called Zucker "a great competitor" and praised Zucker's ascension at NBC.

"I wish him well. ... he's a terrific executive," Moonves said after an appearance Tuesday morning at the "Beyond Primetime" conference sponsored by Common Sense Media and the Aspen Institute at the Time Warner Center in New York.

Moonves had praise, too, for Wright, whom he also has known for years.
"I remember when he (Wright) first came to California. He was dismissed as a GE suit," Moonves said. "He proved to be so much more than that."

Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, who appeared with Moonves at the same event, praised both executives. "Bob did a terrific job at NBC. He had a heck of a run," Parsons said. "I think Jeff is going to be terrific, too."

Wright's accomplishments are long at NBC, where he is one of the longest-serving CEOs in media history. He successfully navigated the network through the transformation of the industry that saw broadcast TV supplanted with cable and the Internet as major revenue streams.

Under Wright's leadership, NBC stayed on top of the ratings for years with such hits as "Seinfeld," "ER" and "Friends," though the network took a very public tumble from first to fourth place after "Friends" went off the air in May 2004.

Wright also expanded the breadth and depth of NBC, locking it up as the U.S. network for the Olympics and starting MSNBC and CNBC, as well as acquiring growth assets, such as Bravo and Telemundo.

Carl DiOrio and Nellie Andreeva in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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