What will Jeff Zucker do next?

Career counseling for a mogul mulling politics and more

Oh, how will he ever get by?

With a mere $15.6 million left on his contract, Jeff Zucker must confront a painful reality on his way out at NBC Universal: He eventually will have to get another job.

While that sum -- $6.3 million in salary plus $1.5 million bonus during the next two years -- should be enough to keep a roof over his head a little while longer, Zucker already might be weighing his employment prospects, which are a tad complicated.

The biggest question for his future is whether his checkered track record at NBC Universal will cast a pall over his next opportunities. If offering evidence of your best work requires popping in a VHS tape of Bryant Gumbel on "Today," that doesn't quite jibe with the reputation he wants to cultivate as an innovator capable of transforming "digital pennies" (his words) into dimes.

Then there is Zucker's brash style, which might have left a burnt bridge or two in his wake. Then again, Zucker's most marketable skill might be his ability to "manage up," given he probably still can count on General Electric chairman Jeff Immelt for a reference after years of dragging down the parent company's bottom line. (One analyst recently valued NBC at negative $600 million.)

The good news: At only 45, he's got plenty of time for a second act, and maybe a third. Executives who have the kind of curriculum vitae he boasts from his quarter-century at NBC Uni -- where he rose from intern to president and CEO -- usually are 10-15 years older.

"He has a long professional career still ahead of him, so don't expect him to be clipping coupons or eating bon-bons anytime soon," said William Simon, senior client partner in the entertainment and media practice at executive search firm Korn/Ferry. "He'll probably get restless sooner with more active years in front of him than some of these other folks."

Zucker might not know what his next move is, or just isn't saying. But that hasn't stopped recruiters around town from pondering how they might offer him career counseling. So are the industry veterans who already have been in his shoes.

For now, Zucker certainly is keeping his options open. As he told The Hollywood Reporter last week, his interests include sports, business, news and, most interestingly, a sector in which he doesn't have experience: politics.

"Washington and Hollywood are strange but interesting bedfellows," said Warren Littlefield, former president of NBC Entertainment. "I don't think people would be surprised if he took a turn in that direction."

First things first, though: Any executive worth his or her salt will tell you that decompression is a must. Making a clear-headed decision about the future requires taking time off.

"You can get so wrapped up in serving a corporation; it's the only world you see yourself in for fundamental decades of your life," said Littlefield, who knows of what he speaks, given he transitioned to producing after putting in a good 20 years at NBC. "It's an entirely new situation to not think about what's best for the corporation and focus on what's best for you."

Part of the problem is that as CEO one becomes so accustomed to people sucking up rather than telling it like it is that one can't help but have a distorted self-image. As David Brownstein, a self-proclaimed career coach for the entertainment industry, sees it, it's kind of like conducting an intervention -- for yourself.

"Start asking for confidential feedback from people who appreciate his talents and success and ask them to speak the hard truth in their perspective," he said.

Taking time off has strategic value, as well; it also will help Zucker put distance between himself and the bad buzz that has trailed him dating back to the implosion of NBC's primetime schedule all the way up to NBC Uni buyer Comcast informing him his services no longer would be needed.

Given his interest in politics, Zucker might do well to take cues from another top executive who exited after a much-criticized tenure: George W. Bush. Like the former president, Zucker will be judged in the short term by his fiascoes: Conan O'Brien is his Iraq, Ben Silverman is his Katrina. Although there's something to be said for owning up to your mistakes, as Zucker has done in some post-ouster interviews, one recruiter said it might be worth emulating how Bush allowed critics to forget him by laying low and avoiding kibitzing from the sidelines like Dick Cheney.

So it's in Zucker's best interests to stop and smell the roses -- and that shouldn't include Charlie Rose, his favorite spin zone.

Studio legend Mike Medavoy, who has reinvented himself more than once during the course of a multidecade run in Hollywood, noted that though bad press might seem ruinous, it doesn't really register in the long term.

"Whatever pain one has as a result of the headlines, one has to realize it's temporary," he said. "I know it hurts for a minute, but it's forgotten quickly."

Others say Zucker has been dogged by such vitriolic coverage for so long that it won't be easily shaken. With the New York Times television-beat writer Bill Carter at work on another book about NBC's late-night woes, it and the inevitable movie deal that follows likely will kick up a fresh batch of Zucker-bashing.

"It could be like what another Zucker -- Mark Zuckerberg -- is going through now with 'The Social Network,' " one agent cracked.

But, as Simon noted, what might look like brinksmanship today could seem brilliant tomorrow.

"Look at the story of Tom Freston, who was supposedly fired from MTV Networks because he didn't buy MySpace," he said of the now-moribund social network. "Now in retrospect, he looks smart for dodging a bullet."

With respect to Zucker, the implosion of NBC primetime on his watch might look bad now, but given the overall declines suffered by the broadcast business in recent years, the massive growth of NBC Uni's cable business during his reign might seem all the more appreciated a few years down the road.

Whatever Zucker does next, few expect him to make another run at Hollywood -- a well he might have permanently poisoned for reasons ranging from accusations of cockiness to disrespecting scripted programming, the town's lifeblood. But if every person perceived as being arrogant was banned from the business, there probably would be no one left.

What's more, "good ideas win at the end of the day," Simon said. "It doesn't matter as much who has the idea."

If Zucker is going to stick to the media business, he has a handful of routes he's investigating: He could try for another CEO post at a major corporation, or there's the 180-degree alternative: take on a smaller, more entrepreneurial role at an existing smaller business or create one himself where the stakes -- and expectations -- wouldn't be as great. Then there are the lower-profile half-steps, including "in residence" posts at private-equity or management-consulting firms, sitting on boards of companies that interest him and starting an advisory firm of his own.

The ideal narrative for an executive encore in the entertainment industry is as clearly defined as a screenplay's three-act structure: the ouster, the self-imposed exile that ends with the eureka idea, and the return to power that resulted in the execution of that idea. Countless executives who have attempted comebacks in the media business fall somewhere across a spectrum that ranges from Barry Diller, who built himself a tech-oriented empire after he was done with Hollywood, to Gerald Levin, who last was heard of running a New Age healing clinic after guiding the catastrophic merger of AOL and Time Warner.

Increasingly, there's been an accumulation of execs who fall somewhere in the middle: the production-deal route taken by News Corp.'s Peter Chernin; building the amorphous small-scale media empire accomplished by former Disney chieftain Michael Eisner; the fickle-investor route epitomized by former Warner Bros. and Yahoo chief Terry Semel; and Freston, who flirts with the occasional job offer but generally just dabbles.

But media-business experience provides what Simon calls a "transferrable skill set" that could be applied to many other industries. Zucker might even have a safety school of sorts with his employer GE, where he's long had unflagging support from Immelt despite his struggles through the years. They've absorbed execs from the NBC side of their business before, including chief marketing officer Beth Comstock.

But most believe turbine engines aren't the kind of things that rev Zucker's motor. Politics, on the other hand, clearly engages him, and he has talked up the possibility of an entree more than once. Although speculation has centered on him as a candidate for some unspecified office, a few Manhattan politicos who wished to remain anonymous don't expect Zucker, known to be a Democrat, to quickly jump into local races. More likely is a gradual immersion behind the scenes, perhaps as an adviser to a candidate, a position he could easily moonlight in should he wish to keep a more traditional day job in the media business.

But if Zucker actually wants to be a candidate one day, he won't be able to have his cake and eat it, too; that will require bailing from the media business. Although he's far from a stranger in New York, he'll need many more years of building up his profile depending on how high he intends to aim; the mayor, governor or senator level would be a reach anytime soon. More realistic is a run in either of his home bases: the 14th Congressional District on Manhattan's East Side, or perhaps even in the Hamptons.

Having spent years in politics as a Democratic fundraiser, Medavoy warns that a candidacy requires a thick skin. But given how both spheres play by similar rules, Zucker should be a quick study.

"There's a lot of similarities between Hollywood and Washington," Medavoy said. "The difference is, in Hollywood, they get paid better."
comments powered by Disqus