Zucker: I can sleep easily

No concerns about late-night shift

Jeff Zucker isn't worried about late-night.

Even as news continues to percolate about competitors circling Jay Leno, the NBC Universal chief Wednesday defended the company's position of moving Conan O'Brien into "The Tonight Show" spot and taking only cautious and vague steps to retain Leno.

"We hope Jay will stay with us, and obviously we'll have those conversations (about another show) with him," Zucker said, speaking at the Harvard Business School's Entertainment & Media conference here.

Zucker said he was not concerned about the interest from rival nets or a syndicated play from some studios, efforts that were likely to gain traction during the coming 22 months before the handover takes place. "There's still a lot of time," Zucker said. "I'm hopeful. But time will tell."

The exec called the decision to move O'Brien into the spot one of the most difficult of his career.

The meeting of media players in snowy Boston also included WGA West president Patric Verrone and the Film Department's Mark Gill.

During his speech, Zucker also fired back at Warner Bros. Television Group chief Bruce Rosenblum, who said recently he could imagine the studio behind such hits as "Friends" and "ER" soon taking shows directly to consumers via digital media.

"I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon. There's still nothing that aggregates an audience like network television," Zucker said. "If Warner Brothers wants to bypass the networks, they're never going to produce television on the level of 'ER' and 'Friends.' I don't buy that at all."

The volley from Zucker provides one of the first examples of what could be a potential widening divergence between the nets and studios — two groups that in recent history have been closely aligned — as the entertainment business shifts to digital.

He also addressed the 100-day writers strike, calling it "unfortunate."

"It lasted too long for everyone. I don't think there any winners when something like that happens," he said.

Zucker reiterated his vow to scale back development in the wake of the walkout, tossing out numbers of a typical pilot scaling down from $10 million per pilot to $1.5 million and cutting down on overall deals.

"Hollywood is a town based on inertia. There are a lot of mansions in that town based on the same old system," he said. "There has to be an event that pushes us to make good on what needs to be done."

Also on post-strike plans, Zucker elaborated on NBC's announcement last week that it was switching to a 52-week schedule. "This has been a little misunderstood," he said. "Advertisers have asked us to be honest about the schedule. What they're asking for is, tell us what's on the schedule. So we're going to present a schedule that is much more realistic and honest."

NBC's year-round schedule announcement drew fire from other networks, particularly Fox. NBC subsequently toned it down, suggesting that big shows would still start in the fall; the company would simply look at more originals and fewer reruns.

On the film side, Zucker defended Universal's slate strategy, which has been lighter on tentpoles than some of its competitors. "We're not managing for headlines or boxoffice share," a process he said "may result in a huge hit but more often than not will result in a failure." Universal, on the other hand, is "trying to manage for margins."

The event saw Zucker, a Harvard undergrad, temper his trademark candor with a more laid-back tone; he acknowledged that he made mistakes as a twentysomthing executive in charge of "Today."

"My youthfulness gave me an arrogance that hurt me," he admitted.

Zucker gamely sat for a long set of postsession questions. "Are you all trying to give me a headache?" he joked to the audience of Harvard Business School students.

But he saved some of his more biting jibes for the media world, specifically print media, which he felt has been too quick to jump on an anti-broadcast news bandwagon.

"The one thing that's certainly dead is the newspaper business," he said. "The only thing they want to happen is for the networks to die faster because it makes them feel better, so as we go through the transition (to digital and cable business) we have to read about that in a disproportionate way."

And he critiqued the biggest newspaper buy in history — News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch's $5 billion purchase of Dow Jones. "It's a lot easier to pay that price when the only shareholder you care about is the one you see in the mirror every day," he said.