What's So Terrible About Jeff Zucker?
In the orange glow of post-World War Conan fallout, no figure looms larger or more menacing than Jeff Zucker, the man whose finger initiated the launch sequence that would turn the late-night landscape into a wintry, chin-joke-strewn wasteland. The "Dick Cheney of television," as he was dubbed by Jon Stewart, can now proudly boast the title of Most Loathed Front-Office Entertainment Figure Since Michael Ovitz. Why the animosity? Why the persistent cries of upward-failing, or that he'd climbed up the NBC Universal ranks in a custom-fitted, solid-gold jetpack? It's the f*ck-ups, stupid. We examine now the highs and lows of Zucker's three-decade career at NBC, a legacy littered in dubious achievements.
The Golden Years
A failure to get into Harvard Law School in 1986 redirected Zucker to a job as an NBC Olympics researcher, leading to a field producer job at The Today Show. It's not clear what happened in those three years that led to his ascension to E.P of that show at age 27. But the golden touch was there. (Rock concerts in the plaza? His idea.) Today shot to number one, and the '90s belonged to Jeff. Even the early part of the 2000s looked swell, as he succeeded in luring Friends back for a tenth season (at astronomical -- but profitable -- costs). He also bet on the appeal of a combforwarded real estate magnate, and turned goat-testicle-eating into fun and prizes on Fear Factor. That last show offered the first indications that Zucker didn't care what he put on NBC, so long as it got ratings.
In 2003, Zucker was named president of NBC's Entertainment, News & Cable Group. The merger with Vivendi Universal the following year upped his title and responsibilities more. He was now in charge of NBC, its cable properties, and Universal's cable networks as well -- USA Network, Sci-Fi, and Trio. The Friends finale aired in May of that year, and that's when things started to go south.
The Terrible Sitcoms and Upwards Failing
The fruitless search for a Friends replacement produced some classic TV flops -- from the all-CGI Siegfried & Roy sitcom Father of the Pride to Joey, aka Friends: Just the Retarded Characters, to Good Morning, Miami, a biographical sitcom about a young wunderkind brought in to save an ailing morning show. No one cared. Longtime first-place NBC fell to last, where it's stayed since.
NBC Universal's board responded by doing the only logical thing: promoting him again, in 2005, to Chief Executive Officer of NBC Universal Television Group. He was now responsible for all programming across all of the company's TV properties -- network, news, cable, and Sports and Olympics. Meanwhile, over at Fox, a show known as American Idol was drastically changing the primetime landscape. ABC had successfully introduced a series of blockbuster scripted hits, like Lost, Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, while CBS and its procedural franchises were performing as strong as ever. NBC, thought, was still dead last, despite finding some success in a new Thursday night comedy lineup, and with Deal or No Deal, a game show in which contestants required no skills or knowledge other than the ability to yell at briefcases. The show began appearing several times a week. It was awful.
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