Jeff Zucker on Conan O'Brien: We Were 'Natural Rivals'

9:31 AM PST 12/08/2010 by Georg Szalai

The outgoing NBC CEO reminisces about having the talk show host arrested during their days at Harvard.

NEW YORK - Outgoing NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker went through his episode of old NBC show This is Your Life of sorts on Wednesday, discussing his oldest passions since his childhood in Miami, his favorite TV show of all time, his two bouts with colon cancer and an early rivalry with Conan O'Brien at Harvard.

In a fireside chat here at the 38th annual UBS Global Media and Communications Conference, Zucker called this time before his exit — set to happen when Comcast's acquisition of NBC Universal closes — after more than two decades at the company "bittersweet."

Having had colon cancer twice in his 30s gave him perspective to look beyond the criticism he has often heard in recent years, allowing him to leave mostly satisfied with growing the business, Zucker said. "I'm disappointed and I regret we couldn't do a better job [at NBC Entertainment]," he said, echoing previous comments that he didn't get the management team for the entertainment programming right until recently. But "I'm lucky to be alive," he added.

He mentioned tennis, the NFL's Dolphins and journalism as his early passions. He recalled how he dreamed of playing on center court in Wimbledon or play quarterback for the Miami Dolphins. "I didn't grow," he quipped in explaining why those plans never went anywhere.

When he was five or six years old, in one of his first recollections of his interest in news, he wondered how TV news shows managed to roll tape after anchor lead-ins, he recounted. 

Zucker also told the UBS crowd that he hasn't figured out his next career step but reiterated his continuing passion for news as well as politics and sports. He is still hoping to play for the Dolphins one day, he joked.

Zucker also recalled how he worried while at the Miami Herald as a young man that cable TV was going to kill newspapers and how that may impact his career. He added that he got into Harvard with an essay touching on that topic. He said in the digital age, media companies face similar concerns.

Zucker was interviewed by Aryeh Bourkoff, joint head of technology, media and telecoms banking at UBS, who said he and Zucker are good friends. When the banker asked about how Zucker met O'Brien at Harvard, the NBC Uni head recounted how they lived in the same dormitory and knew each other well and he headed up the Harvard Crimson paper, while O'Brien ran the Lampoon, which, he said, made them "natural rivals." The two organizations used to play pranks on each other, with the Lampoon team once stealing stuff from the Crimson office, including the president's chair and photos.  

When he and his colleagues caught the Lampoon team red-handed in the street, Zucker said he asked police to arrest them. When the dean of students suggested that he didn't really want to get fellow students arrested, he said "no, arrest them," Zucker recalled. "We let them sit there for like 12 hours" in a jail in Cambridge. He quipped O'Brien was likely "pissed at me" since then.

At the end of the fireside chat, Bourkoff showed a video featuring the likes of Katie Couric, CNBC head Mark Hoffman, Jim Cramer and Universal Studios president and COO Ron Meyer talking about Zucker. "I thought this is the cockiest guy I ever met," Couric recalled thinking about Zucker at first, but then she said they clicked and she got to respect his news sense, creativity and focus. "Jeff has quite a temper" because he is a perfectionist, she also said. Meyer called Zucker "a really good guy" and "a very close friend."

Zucker joked after seeing the video that he felt as if he just went to his own funeral.

Bourkoff and Zucker highlighted how the latter often started in new positions just as drama hit and had to be addressed. For example, just as he took over NBC, CBS moved the red-hot Survivor to Thursday night. "It was my welcome to Hollywood," Zucker said. He added that his immediate thought was: "You can't let CBS attack your most treasured night" and not fight back. And he said: "I paid Friends a lot of money to stay."

Among the various other career steps and decisions discussed Wednesday, Zucker said his time running Today was "one of the most exciting times of my life." He gave the show a shoutout for just celebrating 780 weeks on top in the morning show ratings. 

He and Bourkoff earned early laughs when Zucker sat down for the fireside chat and looked around, "I was just looking for where the fire was," he said. Bourkoff responded: "You'll feel it."

Among the other revelations from Zucker at Wednesday's event: His favorite TV show of all time is The Honeymooners and among his favorite historical figures is FDR.

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