Jeff Zucker Defends 'Gutsy' Decision To Oust Conan, Blames Viewers For ConanGate
The earthquake in Haiti might be devastating news for most of the planet, but for NBC Universal chair Jeff Zucker on Charlie Rose last night, the natural disaster was more ... a tool to deflect attention from NBC's failures. Despite Zucker's distraction attempts, Rose pressed on, drawing a few interesting responses from Zucker's otherwise boilerplate exec answers.
Throughout the thirty minute interview, Zucker characterized himself as a fearless leader who is not afraid to "roll the dice" at the risk of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of failure. The CEO also was careful to define all of his late night decisions as business strategies. Some of the more exciting points in his defense, below.
On whether announcing that Conan O'Brien would take over the Tonight Show in 2004 was a mistake:
"I don't think so...What that allowed us to do was that kept our late night franchise of Jay and Conan intact for five-and-a-half additional years [...] So I think actually that was the right decision at that time and I have no regrets about that."
Whether Jay Leno was upset to have to give up the Tonight Show back in 2004:
"No, he wasn't angry about it. At that point if you go back to 2004, Jay understood it and accepted it, and he was part of that decision. Look, the fact is that Jay continued to be incredibly successful at 11:35 and, you know, in an ideal world he obviously would have liked to have stayed in that role."
Why NBC decided to keep Jay Leno in spite of his dismal 10 P.M. ratings:
"We had the ratings champ in late night for the last 14 years in Jay Leno there. [...]
Well, we thought that Jay would be a broader program at 11:35, and we thought that Conan would have a greater chance for success at 12:05 behind Jay's program. Sometimes you don't know these things until you try them. [...] We've made a business decision that's in our best interest."
Zucker's strength as a leader:
"I think it's the sign of a leader to step up and say, you know, when something's not working to have the guts to reverse it. And the worst thing you can do is to let that mistake linger. And really that's what we've tried to do here. We tried to correct something that didn't work. We're not in denial about that. We're not burying our heads. Leadership about taking chances and taking risks, and also leadership is about acknowledging when they don't work."
Having perspective about NBC's foul-ups:
"Charlie, a little perspective here as well. You just had on someone who we both know well who I grew up with the business in Katie Couric in the previous half hour where you talked about Haiti. So a little perspective on what's really -- the magnitude of what's important here. What you were talking about there was very important. People calling me names in the big scheme of things and people delivering death threats over a program moving back a half-hour is really incredibly out of context when you think about what you were just talking about."
Whose choice it was to bump Conan:
"Charlie, at the end of the day, the viewers voted. The viewers voted on what happened at 10:00 and the viewers voted on what happened at 11:35. And then ultimately it's left to us to make a business decision. And that's what we've done. But this is up to the viewers."
· Jeff Zucker Interview Transcript [CharlieRose.com]