Jeff Zucker has been through as many ups as downs in his professional career as he has in his personal life. In an enlightening profile piece for New York Magazine, the television executive and those who know and have worked with him opened up about his tumultuous career, health issues and his recent falling out with Katie Couric.
There were several poignant reveals as well, including his biggest professional regret and the reason he cried during a meeting at CNN last October.
After creating the powerhouse “Today” at NBC with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, Jeff Zucker began a meteoric rise to the top of NBC Universal. When Comcast took over in 2010, though, it was the door for Zucker. He then reunited with Couric on her failed daytime talk show at ABC — a move that damaged their long friendship — and made his way over to CNN, despite a massive Hollywood backlash.
While he has yet to have another project hit as big as “Today,” Zucker nevertheless remains enthusiastic about what he does, and passionate about working.
We’ve gathered seven of the most surprising revelations from NY Magazine’s profile piece below.
1. Hollywood’s anti-Zucker campaign.
After reaching out to Zucker about the newly-available position of CNN Worldwide president in 2012, Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes started getting calls from Hollywood power brokers like Ari Emanuel and Rick Rosen. Kent was told that Zucker would “destroy the organization” while Bewkes was told that he would gun for Kent’s job.
“I was concerned at the volume of calls I was getting lobbying against Jeff,” Kent admitted. “I was also well aware of everyone’s agenda.” But, according to sources close to the search, Kent did start considering other candidates for the position, while Zucker’s allies rallied to the cause. In November 2012, the job was Zucker’s.
2. Colon cancer, chemotherapy, but no colostomy bag.
When he was 31 years old, newly married, and top of the ratings world as executive producer of “Today,” Zucker saw a gastroenterologist for severe stomach pains. He was diagnosed with colon cancer and endured eight months of chemotherapy while running the “Today” show. When the cancer returned three years later, Zucker decided to have most of his colon removed.
“We made a decision at the time to take out as much of my colon as we could without giving me a colostomy bag,” Zucker said, though because of this he now suffers bouts of kidney stones and gout, “the most painful thing I’ve ever had.”
3. NBC regrets: Leno/Conan “Tonight Show” and Ben Silverman
No one would deny that the chaos surrounding who would host “The Tonight Show” became a nightmare for NBC, and Zucker in particular. Conan O’Brien took over the show in June 2009 from Jay Leno, but by January 2010 the network and Zucker were looking to put Leno back in his old timeslot.
They had controversially moved him into prime time at 10 p.m. ET with “The Jay Leno Show,” and it turned into a ratings disaster. The three-week war between O’Brien and Leno over “The Tonight Show” in January 2010 was ultimately won by Leno, but NBC and Zucker, who called it “my biggest regret of that time,” came out of it looking terrible.
Though Zucker’s tenure at NBC saw the rise of NBC’s cable assets as well as NBC News remaining No. 1, the criticism over the collapse of NBC Entertainment was deafening and drowned out those wins. Critical darlings like “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” failed to pull big numbers like NBC’s yesteryear powerhouses “Friends” and “Will & Grace.” Zucker made the bold move of hiring Ben Silverman, producer behind “The Office” and “The Biggest Loser,” but the decision “blew up over Silverman’s erratic management style.” Zucker fired Silverman in 2009 just two years after drafting him to run the network.
“When I hired Ben, every CEO in Hollywood called to say what a brilliant move it was,” Zucker told NY Mag. “Bob Iger, Leslie Moonves, Peter Chernin. They all thought it was brilliant. Turns out it wasn’t.”
But Silverman blamed Zucker for the difficulties: “He didn’t care about Hollywood, and they certainly didn’t care back. I was dealing with a boss who everyone hated. It was just bullshit.”
4. Falling out with Katie Couric over her talk show.
After their meteoric success together on “Today,” Couric reached out to Zucker in 2011 when she was launching her own syndicated daytime talk show at ABC. But the reunion would prove the undoing of their long friendship, as one source told NY Magazine Couric felt Zucker wasn’t engaged in the process, leaving her to come up with ideas and design the structure of the show.
ABC executives moved to force Zucker out shortly after launch and Couric hasn’t really spoken to him since. Zucker wasn’t invited to Couric’s wedding this summer to finance executive John Molner. When asked about his time with ABC, Zucker refused to talk about it at all, while Couric diplomatically said, “He’s very busy, and I’m very busy doing my thing. I am so happy he’s at a place he can use his talent.”
5. CNN internal criticism: Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper Not Fans of Covering Zimmerman, Malaysia Flight
In an effort to make more of an impact against Fox News and MSNBC’s ratings dominance, Zucker pushed CNN to jump on major stories with wall-to-wall coverage — like George Zimmerman’s trial and the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 307 — and introduced entertainment programming like “The Sixties” miniseries.
Zucker admits that at least part of his story decisions at CNN are based on which ones are generating the most traffic at CNN.com; in other words, giving the people what they want. Jake Tapper vented to colleagues about the network’s Zimmerman coverage, according to CNN sources, while Anderson Cooper protested the marathon coverage for Malaysia Flight Crash MA370. Meanwhile, a veteran producer said the entertainment programming was “akin to McDonalds taking reservations for dinner.”
6. Zucker tears up during CNN meeting
Still recovering from Bell’s palsy, Zucker has been unable to smile for more than a year now. In 2010, he needed a defibrillator surgically implanted due to an abnormal thickness in his heart muscle. Dealing with these health issues is just one part of the new Zucker at CNN, which includes a smaller office and a more humble, man-of-the-people approach.
In October 2013, Zucker was feeling good about the growth the network was seeing with its new direction when he stood before CNN executives in Atlanta. When he began to speak, though, he started to cry. “I told them that we had a lot to smile about and I look forward to the day when I could smile with them,” Zucker said.
7. His last TV job?
After Rupert Murdoch’s takeover attempt of Time Warner led to speculation that Zucker could be replaced, the executive may have started thinking about what was next for him. When asked about what might come next, he had a variety of ready possibilities, and surprisingly none of them were in the television industry.
“I’d like to run a professional football team,” he said. “I’d love to run the USTA [United States Tennis Association], be the sports editor of The New York Times. Would I consider a run for political office? Yes.” He said that it is a “reasonable assumption” to say CNN is his last television job, whenever his time there may come to a close.
The full profile by Gabriel Sherman can be read at New York Magazine.