The Troubled Legacy of Outgoing NBC CEO Jeff Zucker

As he departs, TV critics hail the end of an era

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After a long and tumultuous reign at NBC Universal, Jeff Zucker has been canned. Perhaps best known for engineering the ill-fated Leno-Conan swap, Zucker secured a rumored $35 million exit package.

"It has not been an easy or simple decision," Zucker said in an email to his colleagues. "I have spent my entire adult life here, more than 24 years. This is the only place I have ever worked. The only professional thing I have ever known." In an interview with The New York Times, Zucker conceded that his departure was at the behest of NBC Universal's new parent company Comcast—not of his own volition.

Without a doubt, his legacy will be plagued by his decision to move Jay Leno to primetime. However, his influence at NBC went far beyond last year's debacle. TV critics weigh Zucker's performance:

  • This Was a Long Time Coming, writes James Poniewozik at Time: "As he continually rose at NBC and the larger corporation regardless of the network's setbacks... it seemed the pattern of divergent results-vs.-reward would only end when NBC went out of business and Zucker became Emperor of the Universe... His ability to defy gravity, it would seem, has finally failed him."
  • He Had Highs and Lows, writes Meg James at The Los Angeles Times: "Zucker, who rose to prominence as the youngest-ever executive producer of the 'Today' show and spent four years running the company's entertainment operation in Burbank, took over the entire company in 2007. It was a tumultuous reign. Although Zucker energized the company, moved NBC Universal into the digital age and was a key architect of the online video website Hulu, he badly misfired by hiring an inexperienced independent TV producer, Ben Silverman, to be in charge of programming for the NBC network."
  • He Has a Major Legacy Problem, writes Jon Friedman at MarketWatch: "Zucker presided over NBC’s collapse in prime time — but also oversaw the highly successful news division. He also managed the disastrous decision to put Jay Leno in prime time following his highly regarded tenure at 11:35 p.m. When Conan O’Brien failed to produce good ratings at that our, Zucker took the blame — and O’Brien angrily left the network. Perhaps this is what Zucker will be remembered most for — the O’Brien fiasco. It’s not fair. But in many ways television is the cruelest business because the network ratings determine success and failure everyday, and the numbers don’t reward effort or daring or efforts to cut costs. NBC Universal’s prime-time performance has been largely abysmal under Zucker lately. The network has failed to roll out a high number of popular programs. Zucker, a lifer at NBC, is taking the hit for this failure as well"

While I've taken my shots at him over the years, though, I also admire Zucker in a lot of respects. I believe he has a strong big-picture idea of where media are going as a business, and of the pressures on broadcast TV as audiences shrink and old revenue streams are endangered. ...

It was when it came to, well, putting TV shows on the air that Zucker had a problem. He was a skilled TV executive who proved his chops running the Today Show, but he never seemed to have the golden gut needed to make strong picks in primetime entertainment, especially dramas and sitcoms. His best moves were tactical: supersizing shows like Friends, expanding Today. But I never got the feeling that he had any aesthetic sense for what scripted shows were right for NBC, or even what he himself liked.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.