Zucker defends CNBC, Jim Cramer

NBC Universal CEO also discusses Jay Leno, upfront

NEW YORK -- "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart's recent criticism of CNBC, host Jim Cramer and the business media was "absurd" and "completely out of line," NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker said here Wednesday.

"I thought it was incredibly unfair to CNBC and the business media in general," he said in a keynote appearance that opened the 2009 Media Summit New York, organized by the McGraw-Hill Cos. and produced by Digital Hollywood. (Later in the day, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman defended Stewart.)

Arguing that people can't blame what happened on the business media, Zucker particularly defended CNBC as having done a "tremendous job." Asked if Cramer would be able to go on the "Daily Show" again, Zucker said that would be up to Cramer.

He also defended the "Mad Money" host's past calls, at least in a couple of key cases. "Jim Cramer was out in front," once with a rant against the Fed and once when he said on "Today" six months ago that people should focus on cash, Zucker said.

The NBC Universal CEO said that while historically, CNBC's ratings have been up when markets do well, "that is absolutely not the case this time."

He suggested that was due to the appetite for news and people's need to understand the financial crisis and its aftermath. "This is not a down market," but a complete change to the traditional finance system, Zucker said.

Asked about Jay Leno's future on NBC in the 10 p.m. slot, Zucker said "this is a way to change the (business) model" of the broadcast network and keep Leno, even if it won't bring in the kind of viewership of original primetime dramas. "This is not a ratings play," Zucker admitted. Showbusiness means that the show and the business must be in focus, although the latter has become much more difficult, he said.

Zucker rejected the notion, though, that NBC is admitting defeat by not programming the 10 p.m. slot beyond Leno. "It's a proactive, exciting attempt to change the model."

Overall, Zucker said that the broadcast industry must be going through the same questions as all traditional media in the digital age. Newspapers and Detroit automakers didn't ask questions fast enough in a changing world.

"We need to be honest about the change that is going on in broadcasting," he said, highlighting that the Internet has changed primetime TV and video viewing overall. "We have to think about the model."

Zucker argued NBC's recent years of primetime weakness may help it see things more realistically and clearly than others.

If executives don't learn how young people consume media and entertainment in the digital age, "we will go extinct, and we will become the Rocky Mountain News," Zucker said in reference to one of the recent newspaper closings.

What media and entertainment firms lose in analog money is "not even close" to being made up by digital money, Zucker also told the Media Summit.

"We're to digital dimes now," he said, though, updating his famous assertion that media has exchanged analog dollars into digital pennies. "We have made progress," but he said he isn't sure if analog dollars will ultimately ever translate into digital dollars.

Zucker also predicted a slow-moving upfront, with broadcast networks likely to sell less inventory. But the cable networks upfront will be strong, "particularly for us," he said.

Asked if online joint venture Hulu.com can make money, Zucker said yes. While he didn't discuss finances in details, he said "it's well ahead of time" and will be a key contributor over the coming years.

Does Zucker plan for a possible future decision by NBC Uni parent GE to sell the entertainment arm? "I hope we will be there for a long time," even though "nothing lasts forever," he told the Media Summit, adding that sales rumors have quieted down after two solid years at NBC Uni. And he lauded GE for letting NBC Uni benefit "greatly" from its resources and famous discipline.

Asked about his boss GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt, Zucker said he has been "unbelievably supportive" and he leaves programming decisions to the NBC Uni team.

Discussing MSNBC, Zucker lauded the network's "incredibly strong voices and programs." It could add one more program to its primetime lineup, "which we are actively looking at," he said.

Asked if the news network's opinion-oriented offerings in primetime could pose potential problems, Zucker said: "We're completely comfortable with that." He pointed out that importantly, for example, NBC News has a more dominant position now than it has had in the past. So, the MSNBC anchors' opining doesn't hurt the appeal of the overall NBC news organization, he argued.