Hollywood hopeful for NBC without Jeff Zucker

Many think Comcast will be better steward than GE

Sunday's announcement that Steve Burke will take the reins at the post-merger NBC Universal capped a wave of grim relief and bright hope that swept Hollywood upon hearing two days earlier of the resignation of CEO Jeff Zucker.

Few in the industry had kind words for Zucker, who has presided over repeated failure at NBC and was often seen as aggrandizing himself despite his signal lack of success. But many expressed optimism that Comcast will be a better steward than GE for one of Hollywood's storied entertainment companies.

Those hopes were especially high when it came to NBC, especially as Burke has a long background in broadcast, as did his father before him at Capital Cities and ABC. Many agents echoed the view of Ari Greenburg of WME, who cited a litany of failures at the network before expressing optimism about life after Zucker.

"There's a certain amount of responsibility that comes when one runs a media company," he said. "They set the tone for the pop culture for the country. Pop culture is our No. 1 export. Zucker took the single most important piece of real estate on NBC -- and perhaps TV in general -- and reprogrammed it with a reality series [scheduling 'The Apprentice' on Thursday at 9 p.m. in 2004]. It never recovered."

Greenburg also noted that under Zucker, NBC never found a breakout sitcom for that once-dominant Thursday night lineup. "'The Big Bang Theory' and 'Two and a Half Men' prove there were half-hours to develop," he said. "It's not as if the medium was dead."

Getting rid of Zucker is "step one by Comcast, a statement that they believe in broadcast," he said. While Comcast hasn't tipped its hand yet to the changes that will likely be made atop the leadership of the broadcast network, Greenburg added, "It would be great if they hire somebody who really wants to run a network, and not someone who wants to be a corporate CEO. Zucker clearly disregarded the creative community."

An industry source familiar with the thinking of Burke said that NBC Uni's soon-to-be CEO was astonished that Zucker had had been publicly negative about the future of broadcast.

"Steve was like, how can you have any kind of morale and spirit at a network when the head of the company is telling everybody how bad business is?" he said. "And the fact is, the network business is not that bad. Les Moonves had done pretty well [at CBS] ... What they want to do is turn the peacock into a proud peacock."

Some other outlines of Burke's thinking began to emerge as the merger moves toward completion. Industry observers expect sports to be an area of significant focus for Comcast. With its post-merger holdings, Comcast will have broadcast, cable and Internet distribution and will seek to play far more aggressively in pursuing rights to events--possibly launching an expensive attempt to challenge the dominant ESPN.

While NBC Uni sports chief Dick Ebersol is a towering figure, a source familiar with Burke's thinking said the Comcast COO had some concern that Ebersol is "a broadcast guy" at a time when the industry is dealing in "new realities." Some observers speculated that Ebersol would be teamed with a tech-oriented No. 2 and that one goal will be to lock up rights to the upcoming Olympics in 2014 and 2016.

On the film side, a knowledgeable source said Comcast does not plan to "double down" on movies but will remain in the game. While Burke has thorough knowledge of television, this source continued, "he doesn't have a great deal of experience with movies and doesn't understand why Universal has been on the [bad] run that it's been on. [But] he does understand that there's been such tremendous turnover, such tremendous ambivalence on [parent company] GE's part and inconsistency when it came to their commitment to the film business that it's been very tough, demoralizing run. He's going to change that."

The sense that Comcast intends to put money into the broadcast network and other aspects of the business pervaded the agency world. In early summer, top agents met with Comcast Corp. chairman and CEO Brian Roberts and Burke and there have been some subsequent meetings as well.

"They've been very carefully crafted meetings," said one who attended one of these gatherings. "Comcast does not [yet] own NBC Universal ... When Brian and Steve came through, they were not specific at all. They were more listening tours."

But the two also "wanted to send a message that they're excited to be in the content business and they're going to be putting resources behind the broadcast network and all of their assets," this source said. "Their stewardship will be very different from GE's stewardship--that's the message they were trying to send."

Another NBC insider noted, "The only thing that's uniform everywhere [across NBC Universal] is the speculation that's happening about what's going to happen. It's inside as much as it is outside. We expect it continue as business as usual; Zucker has a vested interest in making this place continue to work until he leaves."

James Hibberd contributed to this story from Los Angeles.