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Jeff Zucker: NBC 'turnaround' in place

CEO cites 'Event' ratings as evidence of upturn

NEW YORK -- NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker said here Wednesday that NBC entertainment programming is seeing signs of a turnaround and expressed optimism that Hollywood can avoid a labor showdown next year.

Speaking at the annual Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference for media investors, Zucker also said that over the next year, one of the biggest operational challenges and goals will be to "fully integrate the Comcast assets into NBC Universal."

Earlier in the conference day, Comcast CFO Michael Angelakis had said the cable giant still expects to close the acquisition of a 51% stake in NBC Uni from General Electric late this year.

Zucker's appearance kicked off with a video package that highlighted key brands that a combined NBC Uni-Comcast would own. "Chuck," "30 Rock," G4, NBC Sports, Versus, USA, Syfy, Bravo and Universal Pictures were among the brands that made an appearance.

While NBC News is an industry leader, improving NBC's entertainment lineup remains a key focus for his team after past primetime challenges, Zucker said, suggesting that a "turnaround is already in place," especially with the early data about the start to the new broadcast season. He particularly pointed to the launch ratings for new show "The Event." Zucker lauded the show for starting off "incredibly well."

Mentioning last year's 10pm experiment with Jay Leno's talk show, Zucker said after its failure, NBC recommitted to scripted shows in that time slot and feels good about that move as he feels better about the broadcast business today, thanks in large part to retransmission consent fees paid by TV distributors. 

Asked about upcoming SAG, WGA and DGA labor talks, Zucker said that he next 8-10 months will be "very important." The previous writers' strike was "very unfortunate" and "not good for either side," he said, calling on the industry and unions that both must have the goal to "ensure continuity."

Added Zucker: "It would be really harmful to both" the guilds and the companies if labor strife broke out.

Overall, he said he was "optimistic" that talks would be constructive, highlighting that "the rhetoric is not very hot right now."

Asked whether consumers are cutting their cable cord due to the availability of online content, Zucker said "we don't see huge evidence of that" and NBC Uni has seen "no impact." But given that cable networks are the firm's backbone, he said NBC Uni is "very conscious that that model remain vibrant."

Asked about the recent announcement of Apple's 99-cent rental plan for TV shows, Zucker said in a rare public comment on the topic: "We don't think 99 cents is the right price point for our content." The company decided against participating as "it would devalue our content," he added.

Asked about the 28-day delay for DVDs to hit DVD rental kiosk operated by Redbox, which NBC Uni also uses, Zucker said "we still think it's the right way to go." He said NBC Uni is "in favor of trying new windows on the film side" and signalled there may be other new windows the company could explore.

Discussing a premium VOD film release window 30-60 days after theatrical releases, Zucker said: "We are interested in it." He predicted it would ultimately come into place, and his firm is "engaged in those conversations."

How about 3D TV, someone asked Zucker, and he told attendees to look for experiments on that front. NBC Uni will "try some things" over the next year to test the potential, but he didn't provide specifics. 

Zucker said he couldn't comment on reports of a possible IPO of online video joint venture Hulu at this time. Chuckles from the Wall Street crowd in attendance showed that at least some took that as silent confirmation that an IPO is a real possibility.

Asked if Hulu has taught consumers to get free TV content, Zucker replied it is meant to "condition consumers against stealing our content."

Finally, the advertising market continues to feel "strong," and scatter market sales remain "incredibly good," Zucker told the Wall Street crowd. But he cautioned that it was "a little too early" to make a call on next year's ad outlook.

This year's midterm elections will surely help though. "Politics will continue to support that market in the fourth quarter," especially in California, Zucker said.