NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker has announced he is leaving the network once its merger with Comcast is complete later this year.
"It's not been an easy or simple decision," he said in an e-mail to employees Friday, and went on to explain that his entire work experience — almost 25 years — has been at NBC.
"It has been a great run and I've been incredibly fortunate," Zucker said in his e-mail.
The possible change-in-command had been looming since last December when Comcast Corp. agreed to buy a 51 percent stake in NBC Universal from General Electric Co. That deal still hasn't cleared regulatory hurdles, but that is expected around the end of the year.
Zucker said in an interview with The New York Times that Comcast's chief operating officer, Steve Burke, had made it clear in a meeting two weeks ago that the company sought to move on with new leadership.
The 45-year-old executive was once viewed as something of a wunderkind, making the Today show the most popular, powerful morning news show in television history. But as a manager, Zucker has been slammed for poor decisions, especially the fiasco surrounding Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien.
Zucker was also unable to stop the slide in NBC's prime-time ratings. Under his management, NBC slid from a No. 1 slot in prime-time programming to No 4.
Yet NBC News has remained the strongest broadcast news division and the network continues to dominate in late-night programming.
NBC Universal has done well financially with its owned networks; Zucker has said that NBC Universal is essentially a cable company now. NBC Universal owns the NBC and Telemundo television networks along with 26 TV stations; cable channels USA, Bravo, Oxygen, Syfy, CNBC and others; the Universal Pictures movie studio and Focus Features; theme parks in California, Florida and Japan; and has part ownership of online video site Hulu.
In the most recent quarter through June, financial results improved at the company mostly because of a rebound in advertising. Operating profit grew 13 percent to $607 million, with advertising, an improving performance by movies and theme park sales responsible.
Zucker's contract had been renewed last year to run through January 2013 with an annual salary of $6.3 million and a guaranteed annual bonus of $1.5 million. If he leaves by January, he can expect at least a $15.6 million check.
The financial terms of Zucker's settlement have not been disclosed but he told The New York Times, “No one has to worry about me. I'm good."
He has made no announcements about his future plans, though he did tell pundit Joe Scarborough he might be interested in running for public office some day.
General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt said in a note to some GE leaders on Tuesday that Zucker has been "creative and composed" during turbulent times.
"Jeff has been a tough-minded, inclusive and innovative leader of NBC Universal," Immelt wrote. "He has always stepped up when the company needed him. He never blinked when it came to tough decisions."
NBC's experiment last season putting Leno in prime time proved a spectacular failure, blowing up further when O'Brien refused to move to a later time slot to accommodate Leno's return to late night. The Winter Olympics in Vancouver last year, while a ratings winner for NBC, cost the company a $223 million loss because rights negotiations were concluded in a different economic climate.
Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce said Zucker's departure was expected because of the active role of Burke, a former ABC executive. While Joyce didn't see NBCU's performance as a reason for removing Zucker, "one could question who was responsible for the NBC network's ratings slippage over time."
Zucker, 45, was an NBC wunderkind who started at the company in 1986 as a researcher for its Olympics coverage. He moved to the Today show and became its executive producer before the age of 30. The show dominated in the ratings behind Katie Couric, Bryant Gumbel, then Matt Lauer, becoming hugely profitable for the company.
In an unexpected move, Zucker was sent to Hollywood to oversee NBC's entertainment division. He alienated many in California with his efforts to cut costs, but he remained a favorite of G.E. executives, who continued to move him up the company's corporate ladder.
Zucker, in his e-mail, recalled the first day coming to work at NBC in August 1986. "It was humid and my shirt was soaking by the time I got there," he said. Zucker survived two bouts of cancer while at the Today show.
"Sure, there have been ups and downs in the last quarter century," he said in his e-mail. "But when I step back and think about what we've been through, I feel nothing but pride and joy. It has been a great run and I've been incredibly fortunate."
Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast, said Zucker has "led the company with integrity and purpose.
"The success of NBC Universal puts us in a wonderful position as we plan our joint venture with GE," Roberts said. "We wish Jeff well in his future endeavors."
Comcast has been tightlipped in its plans for NBC Universal when it takes over. One name that has surfaced as a potential new executive there is Robert Greenblatt, the successful programming chief at Showtime who stepped down when his contract ended this summer.