Jeff Zucker is taking the blame for the decision to move Jay Leno to 10 p.m., while former boss Bob Wright is coming out squarely for Team Conan.
Finally breaking his silence on NBC’s epic late night collapse, the NBC U CEO admitted to the New York Times that his much-hyped strategy to cut costs, boost profits and keep Leno inside NBC had failed.
“At the end of the day Jay at 10 o’clock didn’t work, and I take responsibility for that," Zucker told the paper.
The Times story did not quote Zucker as elaborating on the reasons for the failure, nor did it have him addressing the network’s decision to dump Conan O’Brien after Leno flopped in primetime. Zucker’s friend, NBC U sports czar Dick Ebersol, earlier this week used the pages of the Times to denounce O’Brien as an "absolute failure" and to chide other comics for daring to make fun of Leno.
While he didn’t explain his thinking, Zucker implied that the reaction to his moves was simply a resistance to the crumbling of the old world order in TV.
“I think part of why there’s been such a visceral reaction to this is we’ve talked about change and taking risks, and that’s something I’ve always been associated with,” said Zucker, who’s become known for couching all of his controversial decisions as monumental and precedent setting. “And not being afraid to take chances.”
Zucker also tries to dismiss the unrelentingly negative coverage of NBC’s after-hours debacle, hinting that all will soon be forgotten.
"We live in a society today that loves a soap opera,” Zucker told the Times. “Three months ago it was David Letterman. Six weeks ago it was Tiger Woods’s problems. Today it’s NBC’s problems.”
Much of the Times story read like an obituary for NBC, complete with a detailed history of the network’s early days and quotes from iconic figures in the Peacock’s past — including Fred Silverman and Bill Cosby.
The most fascinating cameo in the article, however, was from former NBC chief Bob Wright. Wright groomed Zucker to be his successor, but — putting on our Kremlinoligist hats for a moment — his comments to the Times can be interpreted as something of a slap at Zucker.
Wright, who could have remained silent on the O’Brien matter, instead chose to express his unhappiness with how things have played out.
"They could have done it another way," Wright said, adding that he was "very disappointed that they are losing Conan, who is very talented. To get squeezed out like that is very tough."
Wright also seemed intent on setting the record straight about NBC’s transformation from a broadcast-centric business into a powerhouse in cable. Zucker’s defenders often cite NBC U’s strong cable track record as evidence that the CEO has actually had a successful run, despite the broadcast network’s well-documented woes.
In fact, NBC U acquired the already successful USA and Syfy (nee SciFi), as well as Bravo, and kept the executives already in place at those networks. Those executives, Bonnie Hammer and Lauren Zalaznick, are generally cited as being the key to their networks’ successes — with Zucker staying hands-off.
Its probably no coincidence, then, that the Times story also makes careful note of how during the 1980s, Wright was arguing for NBC to move into cable.
“I’m very happy with NBC Universal, with the cable channels. That’s my creation as much as anyone else’s," Wright said.
Translation: Zucker shouldn’t get too much credit NBC U’s cable success.
Zucker also takes a hit from another well-known source: Programming legend Fred Silverman, who’s had his share of programming triumphs (and flops).
Silverman, who oversaw such disasters as "Super Train," "Hello, Larry" and "Pink Lady and Jeff," said the chaos created at NBC in recent days is a "corporate embarrassment" and that he’s "never seen anything like it."
He also called the decision to put Leno back at 11:35 p.m. "a Mickey Mouse scheme."
Zucker did get some support, however — from one of his own employees. NBC News chief Steve Capus suggested that the media had been paying far too much attention to the network’s travails, and tried to shame reporters for caring about NBC when people were dying in Haiti.
“He is paying a price that is so out of whack with what is happening here,” Capus said.