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Zucker officially takes charge at NBC

General Electric CEO Immelt expresses his confidence in the fast-rising executive.

February 07, 2007|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Hollywood loves to hate Jeff Zucker. But the ambitious television executive has an important fan in his corner: his boss, Jeffrey Immelt, of General Electric Co.

GE Chief Executive Immelt announced Tuesday that 41-year-old Zucker was now president and CEO of the company's entertainment unit, NBC Universal, succeeding Bob Wright, who led it for nearly 21 years.

On the West Coast, TV agents, producers and executives at rival media companies have marveled, perhaps with more than a twinge of jealously, at Zucker's rapid rise as NBC's prime-time schedule fell on hard times under his watch.

But Immelt saw much more than that. During a conference call with reporters Tuesday, he gave a glimpse into his thinking.

"I liked the way he approached people, and I liked the way he approached change," Immelt said, adding that he had observed Zucker's performance for about five years and was comfortable betting on his future.

"You don't give people jobs like this for what they know today, but rather how fast they can learn and how fast they can change," Immelt said.

Zucker made his name as executive producer of "Today," NBC's morning show. In 1992, at age 26, he became the show's youngest leader ever.

In 2000, he was shipped to Burbank to become president of entertainment in charge of NBC's crucial prime-time schedule. It was clear that Burbank was only a temporary stop -- that Zucker was being groomed for bigger things.

He made millions of dollars for the company by getting NBC into reality TV with such hits as "The Apprentice" and "Fear Factor." He cultivated fans among his troops with his collaborative, open-door style.

Those management skills impressed Immelt, who mentioned Zucker's talent for "motivating people and holding them accountable at the same time. That's a unique package."

But Zucker's stewardship of the network was viewed by some as a disappointment because of his failure to find culture-defining replacements for the retiring hits "Friends" and "Frasier."

Soon after he left Burbank and returned to NBC Universal's headquarters in New York in 2004, NBC tumbled from first to fourth in the prime-time ratings, behind Fox, ABC and CBS.

Immelt pointed out Tuesday that other areas of the company that Zucker was responsible for, including television production, cable channels and NBC's vaunted news division, had been making great gains.

The problems with NBC's prime-time schedule, Immelt said, "were many years in the making."

"It was not attributable to any one or two people," he said. "It was attributable to where we were, and we'll get it turned around. I like the team that we've got in California today that's working on this challenge. I couldn't be any happier about Jeff. He's got 1,000% of my support."

Elevating Zucker could be a defining move for Immelt, who took over in 2001 for the retiring Jack Welch, the legendary chief executive. Although NBC Universal is hardly GE's largest division, providing only 10% of the profit, it is the company's most high-profile asset.

"This is probably the biggest major management change that Immelt has made," said Nigel Coe, an analyst who covers GE for Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. "He's been reinvigorating the management, installing his own men and women. He's definitely been putting his own guys in at the top levels."

Immelt's determination to install his own team at NBC accelerated the retirement of Wright, who at first was reluctant to go. Immelt lauded Wright's ability Tuesday to "see around corners" and push the company into cable television, Spanish-language broadcasting, digital media and deeper into Hollywood.

For his part, Zucker said in an interview that he had never been worried about his popularity outside of NBC: "Having a good relationship with the people who work for me, that's what matters to me the most."

He faces several key challenges, including making sure that the company's core businesses stay healthy. Zucker said the turnaround of NBC's prime-time schedule must continue. NBC's ratings are up 13% so far this season in the key 18-to-49-year-old demographic.

"We need to continue to create high quality, great entertainment," Zucker said. "And we need to find our way in the digital world. We've spent the last year experimenting, but now we've got to figure out how to make money at it."

For more than a year, Zucker has been responsible for divisions that account for two-thirds of NBC Universal's overall profit. Now he takes over digital media initiatives as well as the Universal Studios division, which includes the theme parks, a land development project planned for Universal City as well as Universal Pictures. Now, Universal Studios President Ron Meyer reports to Zucker.

"That's one of the things that I'm most excited about, working more closely with Ron and his team," Zucker said.

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