Showbiz executives fail upward

Jaime Weinman on the fall and rise of Jeff Zucker



Jeff Zucker during the NBC Press Tour in 2003. (AP)

The latest proof of that is the news that Jeff Zucker may be in line to run CNN.

Okay, let me play devil’s advocate here for a second: Zucker’s reputation for failure, while not undeserved, is also partly a product of the time and place when he happened to be running a network. Given a network that hadn’t developed a major hit in several years and was highly dependent on a few aging, expensive hits, and given a broadcast TV business that was clearly about to contract due to new media, he tried to speed up the transition to the business model that TV companies will all have to follow pretty soon: a collection of assets, spread across multiple platforms.

That said, the guy did take NBC from first place to fourth. And once he was relieved of that job by the new management, he was hired by former NBC star Katie Couric to produce her talk show. And now that that’s not really working out, he may get a job running a big cable news network. It’s hard not to wonder what you have to do to become box-office poison as a TV executive. Actors can become washed up; writers can become washed up; but the world of network executives is a small, clubby one, and once someone has established himself as a top executive, it’s hard for him to lose the confidence of the people who make these hiring decisions.

There is one point of similarity between CNN now and NBC during Zucker’s tenure. As the article notes, CNN isn’t actually a money-losing company at this point; it’s a successful, profitable company whose most visible asset – the North American cable network – is a disaster. This is a bit like NBC in the ’00s, which was doing very well in many respects, particularly its cable and news divisions, but was struggling badly in the department most people were familiar with (broadcast entertainment programming). Zucker tried to de-emphasize the broadcast network and put more emphasis on the NBC/Universal “family” of assets, and I would not be surprised to see him do something similar for CNN. In other words, maybe the main network can’t be fixed and the only thing left to do is to make people more aware of the parts of CNN that actually do work: the website and the international news operation. Perhaps that’s the logic behind bringing Zucker in.

The main suggestion for actually fixing the main network, if it’s fixable, has been to emphasize the thing the company has always been best at: international news. That is, turn CNN Domestic, which nobody likes, into something like CNN International, which people actually watch. The advantage of that, apart from the fact that it would get good reviews (the Will McAvoys of the world are always lighting into cable news for not doing enough stories about what happens overseas), is that it would instantly distinguish the network from Fox and MSNBC, networks that only care about international news when it might have some kind of domestic political impact (like Fox’s obsession with Benghazi). The disadvantage is that it’s not clear how many new viewers will watch a network for news that doesn’t – at least at first glance – seem to affect them directly. In some ways the call for CNN to do more international news is a bit like the call for MTV to play more music videos: it’s as much about nostalgia for the glory days of the network as anything else. Still, it might work better than what they’re doing now. Just about anything would have to.

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Showbiz executives fail upward

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong about this, though, but before Jeff Zucker became a punchline he was a wunderkind … and that was mostly on his reputation as a Rainmaker at NBC News. He’s the guy who brought the TODAY show to dominance and if I recall the early 90’s correctly (never a great bet) he was regarded then as a superlative news exec.

    In my mind the rap on Zucker was that he exemplified the Peter principle. He was promoted past where he was really competent. But if my memory on this is right, and I think it is — the guy did know news. So it’s possible that returning to what was once a core compentency might make sense both for CNN (who needs any help they can get) and Zucker (who could use the reputation rehab.)

    • That definitely is the case. On the other hand, as I recall (and my recollection may not be so hot either) it wasn’t just that he was promoted out of news, it’s that he was promoted out of being the producer of one show. On “Today,” his tendency to want to micro-manage everything was considered an asset, but once he was in charge of a network, and then a whole family of networks, it became a liability. Now, I don’t know how much of his terrible reputation is due to the decisions he made and how much is simply due to the fact that he had trouble getting along with the people working under him. I tend to take the “Jeff Zucker ruined NBC” comments with a grain of salt, since some of them come from people who made their own bad decisions. But while he’s definitely earned the right to be considered better at news than entertainment, there’s still a question of whether he has the skills to run a whole network. Not that I have a clear idea what those skills are.