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The longest-running drama at NBC is not "Law & Order," it's the saga of NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker. For 20 years, people in the industry have watched the programming boy wonder climb from a research job all the way to yesterday's triumph, the deal with Comcast. Zucker will run the entire venture.
NPR's Robert Smith recaps the highlights of what we'll call The Zucker Show.
ROBERT SMITH: Jeff Zucker faced career cancelation many times in his two decades at NBC. He survived two bouts with cancer, he survived driving the network's ratings off a cliff, and he survived the criticism.
Ms. AMANDA LOTZ (Professor, University of Michigan): One could say that Zucker completely dismantled the NBC brand and decimated 50 years of broadcast history.
SMITH: But Amanda Lotz, a professor at the University of Michigan, says he remain the golden boy in the eyes of the corporate leadership. So perhaps it wasn't much of a plot twist when he showed up yesterday on the conference call, announcing that he'd lead the new TV, movie, cable partnership between NBC Universal and Comcast.
Mr. JEFF ZUCKER (President, Chief Executive Officer, NBC Universal): Looking for new opportunities, new revenue streams, new windows to the degree that this combination can help facilitate that, that's something that we're incredibly excited about.
SMITH: Revenues, windows, facilitate? Zucker no longer talks like the journalist he once was. But then again, his story was always an unlikely concept for a hit. A young man, just out of Harvard, defers law school to join the lowliest ranks at NBC, first as a researcher, then as a producer on a show in trouble.
(Soundbite of television show, "Today")
Unidentified Man: From NBC News, this is "Today" with Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley.
SMITH: There were tensions between the hosts. A week executive producer, all of this was perfect for someone as competitive as Jeff Zucker. By the age of 26, he was running the program.
Mr. ZUCKER: I don't think there's anything more fun than being a producer.
SMITH: Zucker later told Charlie Rose that in a sense, he tried to run the entire network in the same way he produced that "Today" show.
Mr. ZUCKER: Where you try to tell a story, how you dealt with talent as a producer. I think there are many of those skills that I've tried to use in my current job.
SMITH: But it wasn't his people skills that catapulted Zucker up the corporate ladder. It was something else that Zucker did with the program.
Mr. BILL CARTER (Television Writer, New York Times): The "Today" show is the most profitable show in television.
SMITH: Bill Carter is a television writer with the New York Times. He profiled Zucker in his book "Desperate Networks." He says Zucker pushed the "Today" show to new audience heights. In return, Zucker was made the head of NBC Entertainment in L.A. But Carter says that's where the trouble started.
Mr. CARTER: The criticism of him came from his not being willing to play the game the way Hollywood saw it. He didn't join the club. He didn't actually even really move there. That built up a lot of resentment and made whatever mistakes he made even more magnified.
SMITH: And oh, were there mistakes. Zucker came in with NBC at number one on the basis of hits like "E.R." and "Friends." Thinking like a show producer, he just kept milking them, airing supersized episodes and paying enormous sums to keep them on the air. Amanda Lutz at the University of Michigan says he just wasn't producing any new, smart hits.
Ms. LUTZ: Zucker does not embrace television as art and - or as any kind of real creative culture, and I think Zucker is more about the bottom line.
SMITH: It was great for Zucker's career, terrible for NBC's ratings. Zucker followed up high-end shows like "The West Wing" and "Seinfeld" with cheap reality hits like "The Apprentice" and "Fear Factor."
(Soundbite of television show, "Fear Factor")
Mr. JOE ROGAN (Host, "Fear Factor"): The first action will be your head along with 3,000 Madagascar hissing cockroaches.
SMITH: NBC dropped from first to last place in just one season. Zucker would become president of NBC Universal. TV writer Bill Carter explains that as NBC grew, with a movie studio, Web ventures, cable channels - all successful - that primetime failure just became less important.
Mr. CARTER: GE authorities, who were overseeing NBC, were impressed with him. They were impressed with his performance, with his management skills and his ability to have a vast sweep in terms of what he could handle.
SMITH: If the Comcast-NBC Universal deal goes through, Zucker will have written a whole new storyline for himself.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
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