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NEW YORK — The battle between NBC and Fox ratcheted up Monday when NBC chief Jeff Zucker waved aside Fox Business Network’s chances of competing with CNBC, and Fox responded by firing back at Zucker.
“We seem to be doing two different things,” Zucker told reporters at a breakfast Q&A with the New Yorker’s media writer, Ken Auletta. “CNBC is a serious financial news network. From what we’ve seen from Fox, it’s not as investor focused, not as financially focused.”
Zucker dismissed the financial implications of FBN for NBC. “From a business standpoint it’s had no impact,” Zucker said of the new News Corp. channel.
Later in the day, a spokesman for FBN fired back at the NBC exec, who has had a relatively accelerated rise through the NBC ranks. “Jeff continues to fail upward. With a couple more missteps under his belt, he’ll be running GE before long,” the spokesman said.
The exchange continues a rivalry that has spilled over to everything from business news to primetime scheduling in the complicated and competitive relationship between the companies. And it comes at a particularly odd, even inconvenient, time: parent companies NBC Uni and News Corp. on Monday officially began working together, launching a beta version of their new-media joint venture Hulu.
Even while taking jabs Fox and at News Corp., Zucker endorsed the two companies’ collaboration, saying it would serve as a “superstore” for new-media content.
Zucker’s comments on Fox come two weeks after the Fox Business Channel launched with much fanfare; Fox News president Roger Ailes has set expectations high by saying the new net is aiming for “a revolution.”
At the session, Zucker took a surprisingly frank view of his own career plans, telling the group that he had recently teased his wife he would retire in two years and was “only half-joking.”
With a quick — and, at least in the eyes of Fox execs, unexpected — rise to the top of the GE Unit, the 42-year-old exec is not believed to be close to retirement, though he has made some comments about his post-NBC life previously.
Zucker chalked up any potential move to a decision to spend time with his family, though such a decision would also have to e taken in the context of NBC Uni’s ownership. There has been speculation that GE will try to sell the unit after it airs the Olympics this summer, though Zucker dismissed those rumors, pointing out that that windfalls from presidential campaigns and the Super Bowl would make the post-Olympic period too lucrative for GE to sell.
Zucker discussed his future at a time when NBC’s primetime ratings continue to lag behind rival nets,’ though Zucker said that the fast-growing cable unit, powered by originals powerhouse USA, was responsible for five times as much revenue.
Zucker also took the opportunity to take some swipes at Apple’s iTunes, with which NBC decided to cut off its relationship two months ago. “Apple has destroyed the music business,” Zucker said. “If we don’t do something on the video side they’ll do the same (there).”
The exec revealed that before NBC opted not to renew its iTunes contract, Steve Jobs had turned down an offer from the net to raise the price of just one show, chosen by Jobs, to $2.99 from the standard $1.99 per episode.
Apple’s stance on fixed pricing was cutting into profit — Zucker said NBC saw just $15 million from shows on the site despite significant sales — and Zucker issued a warning for congloms on iTunes pricing. “We don’t want to replace the dollars we were making in the old model with pennies in the digital world,” he said, a philosophy that partly prompted the Hulu launch.
The decision to dive into waters filled with competitors such as YouTube and iTunes — and even, in a sense, with NBC.com — has perplexed some new media observers. But Zucker said the experiment had a clear role in the online content world. “What you have is a superstore and specialty store. Hulu is the superstore, a place you can go to get a lot of content in one fell swoop. NBC.com is the specialty store.”
Hulu was launched in part because of frustration on the part of NBC and News Corp. over both pricing and policing at the Web’s major content distributors. Zucker said Monday the venture could one-up Google because it provided “a safe haven” for advertisers concerned about illegal uploads on YouTube.
With the writers’ strike looming, Zucker tried to walk the network exec’s flickering line between seeming above the fray and jumping into it.
Admitting that a strike would affect television disproportionately over film, Zucker noted that “it’s a very difficult time for this to happen given where we are in consumer habits. If we drive more people away from primetime, that would be very unfortunate,” he said. “Everyone comes to (a strike) at their own peril.”
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