Gavin Polone on 'Failure' Jeff Zucker: Sadly, He'll Still Succeed at CNN (Guest Column)
The producer and Conan O'Brien manager says the former broadcast entertainment chief's toughness -- and the laws of statistics -- suggest a win.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Although many who think they know me would disagree, I am not a "grudge-holder." Truly, I'm not. I like and respect Jeff Berg, who fired me in the late '80s, and wish him well on his new agency venture; and I'm currently represented by my former partners at UTA who dumped me in the mid-'90s. I let shit go. But one piece of shit I can't scoop out of the litter box of my career is the animus I have toward Jeff Zucker. There is no point in going into the specifics surrounding my bad feeling toward Jeff, so I'll just say that when I had a producing deal at NBC, he made routine business disagreements personal and damaging; additionally, I have been one of Conan O'Brien's representatives for almost 20 years, and more than enough has been written about what went on with that. I have specific reasons to dislike the guy, and his ignominious de-jobbing at the end of a bad run of failure at NBCUniversal was a happy event for me.
Given that, you can guess how displeased I was upon hearing that my nemesis had been chosen to lead CNN. I would have preferred he had gotten a job running any other network: I watch CNN more than anything else. Rarely a day goes by without my standing in front of a screen somewhere in my house saying, "Damn right, Erin," or "You go, Fareed," or "Oh, Anderson, if only I were gay." And the coup de grace is something I'm loath to mention: Zucker probably will succeed and be thought of as the hero who saved the network. Why will he succeed if he was proved to be such a failure in his last job? Partially because he succeeded almost as consistently as executive producer of Today as he failed when making creative decisions as president of NBC Entertainment. And, to a degree, because there has been so much negative commentary in the public discourse about him and how he handled things that he possibly has been humbled and won't initially make similar mistakes to those he committed in his last position. But primarily the reason that I'd bet big on Jeff (assuming anyone is taking action on the future success of failed industry executives) is a concept called regression toward the mean.
This statistical rule, put simply, indicates that in most endeavors, where there is any amount of chance involved, a bad performance frequently will be followed by a better performance and good performance will likely be followed by bad one. In their often-cited 2000 study of the top 10 hitters in baseball, published in The American Statistician, Teddy Schall and Gary Smith showed how a preponderance of great batters follow up big seasons with lesser performances and how chance can explain things such as the sophomore jinx and the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, which previously were thought to be psychological phenomena but turned out to be just shifts in luck. This doesn't mean that there is no such thing as excellence. The mean for top hitters is a high batting average, and they are stars even in years where their averages fall under that mean. Zucker's talent guaranteed that he'd win at Today, and his lack of taste in choosing television shows suggests that he would not do well running the entertainment division of NBC, though statistically he should have executed somewhat below how he did in one job and above in the other. The key to having a successful career is to keep at it and get the opportunity to take advantage of an above-the-mean run. That's true if you're a baseball player, media executive or film and television producer. You need to be tough to outlast the bad swings. Zucker is tough and competitive; if he weren't, he'd sit at home on his millions or take a job teaching at a university. These characteristics are why he endured the process necessary to get this new gig and why he'll work hard and stick it out until the network improves. And, honestly, I admire that.
But if I admire Jeff's toughness and conjecture that he may have learned a lesson about how he treats those around him, why not send him a congratulatory e-mail and wish him well instead of ragging on his past failures in this public forum? The answer is my own unscientific statistical observation, which has shown that assholes reformed by having to confront failure regain their assholishness soon after re-establishing their lost eminence. Assuming that I'm right and Zucker hits it out of the park at CNN, the previous behavior I have witnessed from him and didn't like will re-emerge, and in a sense, his personality will eventually regress to the … mean.
Gavin Polone is a film and television producer.