NBCU’s Jeff Zucker is now like 14.5 million other Americans: unemployed.
Of course, the exiting NBC-Universal CEO also is unlike those other 14.5 million Americans. The two years he had left on a 3-year contract gives him the kind of unemployment cushion that others only dream of. Money aside — Zucker's base salary was $6.3 million — top-level entertainment executives tend to do very well after they’re fired.
But Zucker and his deputy Jeff Gaspin – the NBC entertainment chief who exits with him – join a deep pool of talented, top-level Hollywood executives left underemployed at the peak of their careers.
They include former Universal chairman Marc Shmuger, Fox marketing chief Pam Levine, former Disney chief Dick Cook, former DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press, Disney digital chief Steve Wadsworth and many others.
The entertainment industry is a rough arena where competitors play big and fall hard. But many would agree that as studios contract in a tight economy, there's more underused executive talent than is normal – or healthy – for the industry.
"It's like a game of musical chairs where the chairs keep getting taken away," said one television mogul whose job, for the moment, seems secure.
Those out of music have landed as consultants, as producers, as entrepreneurs. Their former colleagues one-and-a-half steps lower down in the corporate hierarchy tend to find the transition far more difficult. None would speak on the record.
Newly out-of-work executives face a substantially different job market than the one they entered, and need to adjust their expectations, Bill Simon, global sector leader in media and entertainment at the executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International, told TheWrap.
“People have to be very realistic about what the marketplace looks like today. The compensation levels … are less than they were,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that people aren’t well paid, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t great opportunities, it means that compensation levels aren’t as robust.”
An individual close to Zucker told TheWrap that the NBC executive has received a number of job offers, but plans to decompress and spend some time with his family before he decides what to do next. And Zucker told a NAPTE audience last week he’s considering a return to news and sports producing.
Gaspin has openly told colleagues he's not sure what he's going to do with his free time, after more than 20 years at NBC.
In fact, one former studio chief told TheWrap that many one-time top executives are happier in their new roles than they were running studios.
"I know one person who would be dying to do it again, but most people I know – and I know several – find themselves surprisingly happy," the former boss said.
That former boss, though, acknowledged that it's jarring to suddenly be out of the executive suite.
"It’s a radical difference in the energy level, the amount of pomp and circumstance, a whole organization attending to what your needs are to just kind of being back to doing it yourself," the person said. "You go from this place where you're in the center of the world's busiest intersection and everything is incoming all the time, to back out where … you have to make things happen."
Michael Eisner, who was ousted from Disney and started the Tornante Company, still gets access to some of the world’s most successful people. For his book, “Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed,” which will be released in paperback in February, he got time with Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger and Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.
Those meetings should be expected, a former studio chief said.
“They’re having the same lunches with the same people they always did,” the individual said. “The difference is, he’s not employed and the other guy is picking up the tab. Other than that, they’re talking about the same people and the same projects.”
For executives a rung or two lower on the corporate ladder, compensation is lower and opportunities are fewer.
One former entertainment executive who was highly placed, but not at the top of a company, has been out of work for 10 years. He has downsized his life and his expectations and is scrambling to find something.
As his job search, he made a list of former colleagues who might be able to help.
“I would say 90 percent of them were unemployed,” he said. “I was shocked. And pretty much all of them, as far as I can tell, are doing the kinds of things I’m doing – giving up on finding a job with a company and more or less trying to get something new off the ground.”
Simon said executives can expect to be out of work for a few months or a few years.
“There aren’t a ton of those jobs that open up each day – or each month or each year,” he said. “You’re looking at a pyramid, and if you’re at the top of the pyramid, it’s a lot smaller.”
Simon said executives who are out of work need to recognize that their job search could involve compromise – that sometimes a job is better than the perfect job.
In entertainment, like in many industries, the longer someone’s out of work, the harder it gets to find something.
“For people at that level, you fall off the grid fast,” a person familiar with many executives told TheWrap. “In this town you get cold within 48 hours.”
Simon, the consultant, said that some of these human assets can be expected to go looking in other industries.
“They’re probably not going to go into the pharmaceutical business,” he said. “Could they go to a Yahoo! or a Google or a Microsoft and do something on the content side, or a publishing company…Yes. They could do any number of things.”