Jeff Zucker 2.0
The golden boy of television takes on the Web.
Here follows the Legend of Zuck, unabridged: Barely legal and new to television, little Jeffy meets Katie Couric, then young "Katherine" with a girlish bob; Zucker and Couric become a dynamic duo, restyle their hair and assume control of the Today show; Zucker either does or does not start methodically taking credit for other people's ideas, particularly TV veteran Steve Friedman's vision of an outdoor soundstage with huge crowds attending big, fancy concerts in the summer; Zucker makes a mint for the network with Today; Zucker gets promoted out of the news division to run the entertainment division, where he futzes with NBC's ever-dwindling collection of hit shows, sapping each in turn of its vibrancy and worth but picking up The Apprentice along the way; Couric leaves for CBS; Zucker hires Meredith Vieira to replace her; the Today show continues at No. 1; and shazaam! Zucker becomes president and CEO of NBC-Universal.
Somewhere in there, Zucker married Saturday Night Live supervisor Caryn Nathanson and was diagnosed with colon cancer, a disease he has fought off twice, missing hardly a day of work. They have four young children.
Zucker has never been profiled as indulgently as his counterparts—perhaps because he lacks a schtick. People love CBS President Leslie Moonves for his Reagan-like panache, his hot wife, and a smile that shouldn't be viewed without protective eyewear. Roger Ailes at Fox is rotund, antagonistic, charming, and easily vilified. Jon Klein at CNN is savvy and accessible, plus he does good impressions of other industry big wigs. Even Anne Sweeney, the little-seen president of the Disney-ABC Television Group, has a kind of West Coast, Disneyland, Cinderella mystique. Zucker's most extensive biography (a Lynn Hirschberg special) appeared in the New York Times days after Sept. 11, 2001. Lest anyone who didn't read it then feel moved to read it now, here's a concise synopsis: that Jeff Zucker is good, but he's no Brandon Tartikoff (the great, visionary, one-time president of NBC's entertainment division).
Zucker's skills are more scientific than creative. He's terrific at fussing with ratings data and obsessed with demographic research. His contributions to the medium include "supersizing" episodes of Friends and Will & Grace to suck out as much ad revenue as possible and to prevent NBC's Thursday night viewers from being able to flip to another network. He has pioneered the technique of clustering national advertising within a show, a sneaky way of getting more favorable ratings. Nielsen rates only portions of programs that contain national ads, so Zucker figured out that by putting all the Ford and General Motors commercial during the time when most people are watching and saving the Bob's Discount Furniture commercials for the rest of the show, NBC could appear marginally more successful than it is.
The unquestionable genius of Jeff Zucker is his ability to tend to his own personal myth. He provokes more anxiety of influence, in the Bloomian formulation, than anyone else in TV. One executive at a rival network was known to tell his youthful underlings, "You can't compare yourself to Jeff Zucker." Comparing youthful television producers to Jeff Zucker, by the way, is a great trick for getting them to dish about their own network. In his second official public act as president and CEO of NBC-Universal, Zucker hosted a press conference at 30 Rock on February 13 to announce the hiring of former New York Giant Tiki Barber as an NBC News and Sports correspondent. It was a classic Zucker performance: He was tan, healthy, penny-loafered, scratching his nose, sitting quietly, and looking like the happiest person on the earth.
Rebecca Dana is a writer in New York.
Photograph of Jeff Zucker by Peter Kramer/Getty Images.