Jeff Zucker Breaks Silence About Katie Couric Show, Feels 'Terribly' About TV's Failures

Jeff Zucker - 2010
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The former CEO and president of NBC Universal, who currently suffers from severe case of tennis elbow, also takes responsibility for the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien battle.


NEW YORK – Jeff Zucker, who stepped down as president and CEO of NBC Universal in February, just can’t get away from the debacle between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. Appearing for a Q&A session with CNN’s Ali Velshi at Promax BDA -- the annual marketing, branding and design confab -- Velshi queried Zucker about the decision to put Leno back on The Tonight Show after the failed 10 p.m. experiment.

“I don’t regret necessarily what we tried by asking Jay to do 10 o’clock and Conan to do [The Tonight Show],” said Zucker. “What I regret is neither show worked. That’s what happened: Neither show worked. And then we had to make a decision about how to fix them.”

Zucker added that the decision to offer Leno the Tonight Show back turned out to be “the right decision.”

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“It doesn’t make me happy to say that,” he said. “I regret that we had to make the decisions. There were no winners out of that. A lot of people got hurt in that process. And that was incredibly unfortunate.”

Wearing a brace on his right forearm because of a serious case of tennis elbow, Zucker otherwise appeared tanned and relaxed. Now that he has left NBC, where he started his career as a researcher in 1986, he seems to be taking a buck-stops-with-me approach to the late-night skirmish that spurred so many negative headlines.

“Obviously, we thought it had a chance of success,” he said. “There were a lot of people who were on board [with the decision]. You probably can’t find them now. But that’s the way that goes. Ultimately at the end of the day, it’s my responsibility. Others were on the line to make the decision. But I signed off on it. So ultimately, it’s my responsibility.”

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The chat also touched on Katie Couric’s new talk show (which Zucker will executive produce with her), the impact of MSNBC’s partisan hosts on NBC News and the network’s failure to find hits after Friends and ER.

 On Katie Couric:

“I think Katie is a unique brand in television. The mere fact that we can just say, 'Katie,' and everyone knows who you’re talking about is evidence of that fact. I think what people have missed for a long time is the Katie who was part of …the Today show and who is big enough to have fun and be serious all in one show. That’s really what you’ll see [on her talk show]. That’s what her brand is. It’s a brand that has credibility and fun. Our hope is we take that into that program. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”


“I think the viewer gets it. They understand that CNN offers a certain kind of coverage ... and that MSNBC offers in primetime a particular point of view and Fox [News] offers a particular point of view. I actually think the viewer understands that. There was not a secret meeting that happened where we said, ‘Hey, let’s go left.’ What happened is that Keith Olbermann emerged with his anti-war views at 8 o’clock at night. We couldn’t help but notice that. We put a program behind it [The Rachel Maddow Show]. And it all worked; that was a business decision. For the first 10 years at MSNBC, we couldn’t get arrested. And then all of the sudden people start saying, ‘Isn’t it hurting the NBC News brand?’ My argument on that is: I give the viewer way more credit. If it was hurting the brand, Today wouldn’t be the No. 1 morning show for 15 years. Brian Williams wouldn’t be in first place. Meet the Press wouldn’t be the No. 1 Sunday morning show."

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On NBC Entertainment’s primetime woes:

“In the end, those two shows – Friends and ER – came to define NBC Entertainment. Our problem and my problem was we really couldn’t find the successor for Friends. We never found it. It’s hard. But you can argue that we had a lot of success with The Office, and Two and a Half Men is a hit for CBS. But until [ABC’s] Modern Family came along, there was a real drought of comedies. NBC had a history of being able to [produce hit comedies]. But we weren’t able to replicate that. It’s not like our competition was doing it either. It’s incredibly hard in a world where 90 percent of shows fail. Obviously, I feel terribly about that.”