NBCU’s Jeff Zucker: ‘I Made Poor Choices’

Outgoing chief talks about cable success, primetime failure, Leno, Olbermann and his political aspirations

On a day when Comcast formally announced the roster of executives that will run NBC Universal after the $30 billion mega-merger of two companies is approved, outgoing chief Jeff Zucker gave what was, ostensibly, his exit interview in New York.

Zucker sat down with CNBC “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer on day two of the Paley Center for Media's International Council 2010, a three-day forum that kicked off Wednesday.

First, Zucker addressed on status of the Comcast-NBCU deal. “I think we’re in the end game of the regulatory process,” he said, noting that the concern on Capitol Hill about the deal now hinges on the “future of online video.”

Zucker said that he still expects the merger to be approved by the end of the year, but that a resolution “has to come in the next two weeks” in order for that to happen.

In assessing his tenure at the company, Zucker said he’s most proud of NBCU’s cable business. “[We] supercharged what Bob [Wright] put together,” he told Cramer. “We created a cable powerhouse at NBCU that is the best out there.”

Zucker said that NBC’s primetime troubles have unfairly overshadowed the success of its cable business.

“We have not had enough success in primetime,” he said. “That’s a small piece of the company, but a large part of our perception.”

The “worst thing” he did during his tenure as the Peacock's president? “I made poor choices,” Zucker said. “Ninety percent of the executive team we got right, but I made poor choices at NBC Entertainment and we couldn’t turn it around.”

Cramer also asked Zucker about his post-NBCU plans.

Cramer: Do you want to go back to being a journalist?

Zucker: [Long pause] Maybe, maybe […] That was my first love, never strayed far from that in my mind … I would always consider that.

Cramer: Does that preclude politics?

Zucker: [No pause] No […] Would I run for office? I certainly haven't considered it, but I'd think about it.

More quotes from Zucker:

>> On the Olbermann donation scandal: “The viewer knows the difference. The viewer knows what ‘Countdown With Keith Olbermann’ is about, what Bill O’Reilly is about … [But] if you are anchoring election night and if you are not open and clear, then I think it's a problem.”

>> On newspapers vs. television: “I don't think we’re newspapers. Newspapers need to reinvent themselves. […] I don't think television is in that kind of trouble.”

>> On the decision to put Jay Leno on at 10:00: “I don’t regret what we did, I regret that we didn’t get it right. If the show had been a little stronger, it would've been a genius move. The difference between failure and success was a couple of tenths of a ratings point. We took a risk, it didn't work, and we stood up and said it didn’t work.”

>> On media “brands” like Howard Stern eventually moving to the Internet:  “Howard stern will have a bigger impact if he does that than Michael Eisner.”

>> “Will we start to see the disintegration of TV with programmers going straight to the
web?” Zucker: “Yes.”

>> “Programming viewing according to a schedule, when does that disappear?” Zucker: “On the broadcast side, it's not imminent. […] We’ll have schedules for the next several years, [but] we're clearly heading to an on-demand world, where content matters more than the schedule.”