End of an Era: NBC Post-Zucker?

October 6, 2010
By | 13 Comments

Jeff ZuckerI’ll always remember where I heard the news. I was just checking email before giving a talk when the Variety Breaking News headline caught my eye: Zucker to step down at NBC Universal. I couldn’t help but smile, and part of me felt things were just a little more right in the world. But why? Could one man make that much of a difference?

I’m not sure why I’ve rooted for Zucker’s demise; I suspect it is mostly the arrogance that seems to emanate from him, but it is also my sense of him as the embodiment of the non-creative, creative industry manager. Although there are certainly many for whom this is more precisely true, Zucker never managed to balance a love for the potential of television with a love for the bottom line. Indeed, his job description only expected the latter, but the great ones have managed to do both. Perhaps Zucker has been the object of many barbs because he has so stunningly failed upward for so long—at least from the vantage point of those who respected the mix of artistic and commercial success NBC accomplished in the years of Tartikoff and Littlefield. But an end is near, and after a decade of waiting, I’m not sure it matters.

Does our attention to the rise and fall of Zucker unduly emphasize the role of network programming chiefs and other executive managers (in an era of conglomerated media it seems less a matter of title and more an issue of managerial style as those such as Zucker and Moonves have remained connected with programming decisions long after moving up the executive chain)? Many programming chiefs and network executives feature prominently in the received academic lore of television history. The Weaver versus the Bob and Bob years at NBC, CBS under Paley, Silverman’s near hat trick (most definitely not Ben), Tartikoff, Moonves, Zucker. Lost among these are many others; the more recent ones may still be recalled, but which will become part of the institutional history of the networks and of television, and which should? When I teach television history a decade from now, should I bother with Zucker, and what would I teach? Indeed, there are lessons about the undoing of a prestige network brand, of the shortsightedness of gimmicks such as “super-sizing” instead of innovative and thoughtful program development, of poorly conceived spin-offs, of many, many series kept on the air far too long.

Does Zucker’s tenure tell us anything about the nature of “management” of creative industries? I suspect not. Or at least to date I’ve lacked the imagination to conceive of their being meaningful commonalities that might develop into worthy theories of this complicated blend of creative and, well, practical work. For every Zucker, there is an Ancier (his tenure at NBC notwithstanding). And even more challenging, how do we research questions about creative managers in order to base theoretical musings on some empirical base? It is certainly one thing to play armchair programming executive—even with the benefit of trade press and industry gossip blogs—but to really understand the universe of options executives face and the interests they balance requires access I can’t imagine being afforded, at least for any study of the near-present. Perhaps this is why we know so much of 1950s programmers. Although again, what is the empirical basis of that work? How much came from archives and personal letters versus analytical assumptions of scheduling and programs (a question I don’t know the answer to).

Please enjoy a look at the Zucker years, this captures them remarkably well.


Tags: , , , ,

13 Responses to “ End of an Era: NBC Post-Zucker? ”

  1. Jeffrey Jones on October 6, 2010 at 9:26 AM

    Great post Amanda. My thoughts in one (program) word: the Today show! Made a ton of money while doing such brilliant things like rock concerts at 8 a.m. (ahem) and a window for all the tourists to do what tourists do best (be annoying). What creative vision! “Hmmm…let’s promote him.” Maybe we should be asking the question of who exactly thought this A + B = $.

  2. Derek Kompare on October 6, 2010 at 9:39 AM

    Thoughtful response to the end of the Zucker era, and a challenge to all of us doing industrial studies. Without access to NBC executive suites, our empiricism is largely woven out of discursive threads from the popular and trade presses, and a few insider-y histories and biographies (e.g., I’m sure Ken Auletta is writing a tome about the demise of NBC as we speak).

    But as you suggest, that’s arguably how it’s always been (a few archival crumbs notwithstanding). That is, our construction of such figures is already unavoidably narrativized by these discourses. In many ways, as Caldwell would argue, these discourses are the totality of these figures, their reputations and acumen mattering only in public or semi-public fora. In Zucker’s case, we may never know what internal politics at GE kept him around, but we can, and should, base our assessment of his tenure on NBC’s fate, and the very public ordeals connected to him.

    Moreover, in some ways it’s too easy to overstate Zucker’s ineptitude. ABC was extraordinarily poorly run for the first half of the 2000s. CBS frankly got lucky with CSI and Survivor (neither of which were intended to be flagships upon their launches). Fox spent much of the decade pathologically dependent on the World Series and American Idol to keep their heads above water. Zucker’s mistakes were certainly more spectacular, but given the environment, he wasn’t the only executive making bad decisions.

    In many ways, Zucker is probably best assessed as a symbol of post-network decline, i.e., of the inability of the established powers to maintain control over television during a period of immense change. Stuck between aging and fading cornerstones (the L&Os, ER) and an almost random strategy to desperately find things that stick (from The Office to Heroes to The Biggest Loser to the Leno Show debacle), Zucker was only the most obvious fall guy for an era of reaction and missed opportunities.

    • Amanda Lotz on October 6, 2010 at 1:35 PM

      All good points Derek, particularly about the trying times of change. NBC had the most to lose given its dominance heading into the last decade–so you’re right in noting Zucker shouldn’t be singled out. I am curious though, what might have happened if someone with a bit more creative vision had been steering the ship. And I’m not sure that it was luck at CBS. As much as it isn’t my programming of choice, there were deliberate moves (the strategic move of CSI to Thursday was a big gamble) and certainly that ever present mix of chance in terms of the unexpected success of the shows you note.

      Oh–and Bill Carter’s Desperate Networks is probably this era’s version of Three Blind Mice.

      • Tausif Khan on October 7, 2010 at 12:38 PM

        I really do think that Zucker is unfairly painted as a villain in a decade which saw the death of network television as an aggregator of entertaining and informative media which could be distributed to the masses. Emily Nussbaum’s piece reminds us that most of the “brain food” was seen on cable. For me Zucker showed his intention to respond to die hard fans with keeping Chuck alive (while Firefly and Arrested Development and most recently Lone Star has been canceled by Fox). He has created a successful block of comedies on Thursday night which not only entertain but reach some level of truth for those who watch those shows.

        And for that I completely agree with Derek. To me I don’t see the CBS alphabet soup crime drama franchises (CSI and NCIS) contributing anything to culture. ABC did nothing to follow up Lost with another intelligent and entertaining show throwing Flash Forward and a rushed remake of V at America. Fox previously mentioned has canceled its most ambitious fair toying with die hard fans. For my money the WB was actually the most successful critical network allowing show runners to develop their writing chops the likes of Joss Whedon, Ryan Murphy, Jason Katims people who are making the best television on networks today.

        So in this age of smaller audiences FX, AMC, and of course HBO make the most interesting and successful television decision. Challenging and entertaining their audiences while remaining financially stable.

        • Amanda Lotz on October 7, 2010 at 1:21 PM

          I was thinking a lot about both FOX and the WB in writing this–and wondering about the variable of “outlet status” in thinking any possibility of uniform theories of managers. That leads into the question of variation in television outlets though, and say, the different imperatives of ad-supported and subscriber-supported economic models–as in the case of the differentiation of HBO. Do the cable outlets allow more artistic play because of the their managers, or because their economic model enables it. I do think we must keep in mind the mandate of outlet. I’m critical of the lack of artistic innovation at NBC relative to the simultaneous commercial failure. CBS’s procedurals may be creatively dull, but clearly accomplish the commercial mandate of the outlet.

        • Jonathan Gray on October 8, 2010 at 10:06 AM

          I’m struggling to see NBC as wonderfully creative, Tausif. As you say, they’ve offered some good things under Zucker, but I don’t think we can credit him with too much creativity or boldness with their successes. Signing off on an American version of the extremely successful British Office or signing the creator of The OC and Gossip Girl to a show are kind of no-brainers, and thus while I love The Office and Chuck, I’m hesitant to credit Zucker with much creativity or boldness there. Meanwhile, we have the new shows this year, which on NBC are marked by a bunch of safe choices, resulting in fairly bland fare.

          Indeed, while you fault FOX for canceling ambitious shows, the other way to look at it is that they greenlit these shows in the first place.

          But for me so much comes down to Leno. I’m no fan of much of CBS’ stuff, but at least they’re catering to an audience and trying to entertain — even if it’s not my personal favorite as a style of entertainment — whereas the Leno move was never about entertainment. Giving him a third of primetime was a horrible, disgraceful move if we’re evaluating the network for creativity. It was lazy and coldly cynical in giving up on trying to get audiences, simply hoping for a low enough bottom line to scrape through.

  3. Tausif Khan on October 9, 2010 at 10:42 AM


    Thanks for the response. I am not an academic within the field of media studies (but I am interested) so you could explain a little more about outlet status and uniform theories of managers?

    HBO is something I have been thinking about recently. David Bianculli of Fresh Air got it out of Terrence Winter in a recent interview (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130184684) that it would be fair to say that the pilot for Boardwalk Empire cost $20 million where as the pilot for Lost cost $14 million. How can HBO afford to take so much risk? In terms of ratings, high rated shows on cable tend to be in the 2 million viewer per week range. With a premium network like HBO I would imagine it would be less. So how do they know they are going to make a profit after spending so much on the pilot? I have heard of similar expenditures on projects like The Pacific for HBO (David Simon’s complaint about not getting much support for Treme while Speilberg and Hanks get most of the funding).

    I don’t attribute HBO’s confidence in programing only to subscriber fees. HBO is also owned by Time Warner so I think they have other funding sources as well. For me that brings up the idea that given that they are not an independent channel (independent from a parent company) how different are they from broadcast networks in terms of making money and being responsible to a parent company?

    At the same time how different is the economic model of HBO, AMC and Showtime from that of PBS. All these networks depend on viewer support and have external support from corporate (and in the case of PBS, government support) funding. The interesting thing for me is that PBS has been able to pull this off on broadcast television competing with ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. Each channels have given us the most innovative programing on television. This to me shows the benefit of subscriber-oriented economic model. In this conception television is thought of as a public good. It might be interesting to look at Collective Action theories (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_good and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Logic_of_Collective_Action) to understand why subscriber-oriented networks have more success producing critically acclaimed hits.

    FX to me is the anomaly here. The only way I can explain their success is that John Landgraff has basically said that they will probably never have five nights a week of original programing while having the support of a major network.

    For me television is about contributing something to society while at the same time entertaining. I feel that finding the right economic model should support this goal (economic success should not be the singular (main) goal of any network. If this is the case, network executives would be better served being hedge fund managers). For broadcast networks I think that entails putting on some shows they know will draw a lot of people into watching the show (Fox became a network because of American Idol. After Idol they were able to fund more scripted shows and get away from World’s Worst clips shows) which do not necessarily have to be critically successful. I just won’t watch those shows but know that it will provide the network funds to produce other good programming.

    having said this…


    I agree that Zucker has not been a darling of innovation. My point was more so to say, can we say that other broadcast networks have been more daring and successful than Zucker, definitively? In comparing the products of other broadcast networks I find very little innovation with all of them. The most (economic) successful networks in the 00’s have been networks that have not been innovative. We saw many reality shows and CSIs, NCISs. For me the 00’s were filled with cop and lawyer dramas and reality shows. Fox put on American Idol which is not a novel idea. American Idol is just the Star Search or Showtime at the Apollo of its day.

    The most successful innovative network fair in terms of scripted television has owed its success to reality television (which with Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution I realized could be done brilliantly). People tuned into Lost because they thought it was a scripted Survivor. People tuned into Glee because they thought it was a scripted American Idol. However this is not a viable method for economic development of innovative programming.

    Yet within all of these larger trends Zucker made room to support struggling shows for die hard fans. NBC okayed the return of Chuck even though it had dismal ratings because of the support from Subway. Zucker and company found a way to work with fans to put programming on the air that the love. I do not see that from other networks. Kevin Reilly came from NBC and went to Fox brought back Joss Whedon and Mitch Hurtwitz only to cancel their shows before a full season run had been made. The reason why I bring up Fox is to say for me just greenlighting an innovative show does not earn you points. Network executives jobs are to find ways to make money for the writers, directors, actors, etc. and support their creative projects. When you produce a show like Firefly or Arrested Development (and with Reilly Dollhouse and Sit Down, Shut Up) you know they are not going to make a lot of money before you put them on the air; so to compare their ratings to other less innovative fair like Law and Order or CSI is unfair because the expectation is that they will get low ratings and not make a lot of money. Therefore it is incumbent upon television executives to find creative ways to fund projects they know will not make a lot of money (through ratings) but will critically engage the viewing public. In this domain Zucker looks better then executives at Fox and ABC who did not look to find sustainable funding for creative and fun shows (Fox canceling its most innovative shows: see Lonestar and ABC not taking a serious effort to find something creatively interesting as Lost before it went off the air).

    Moreover in the 90s NBC was mainly known for one night of programming Must See TV on Thursday Nights. They were considered to be the #1 network at the time. From that era I can name about three shows Seinfeld, Friends and Mad About You. I have a hard time remembering few others. Given this how different is NBCs success from that era. Now I can name Chuck, Community, 30 Rock and The Office. In the case of both Chuck and 30 Rock both have dismal ratings but are critically successful. For the past couple of years Emmys only went to Mad Men and 30 Rock. Mitch Hurwitz has said that 30 Rock is closest in sensibility to Arrested Development. So for me not only has NBC put on creative innovative fair on television, they have also found ways to keep them on the air.

    My point in bringing this out is not to say that Zucker did everything right (see Conan and Jay) and Fox ABC and CBS did everything wrong. My point is to say that Zucker is unfairly painted as the worst television executive.

    • Jeffrey Jones on October 9, 2010 at 11:41 AM

      “So how do they [HBO] know they are going to make a profit after spending so much on the pilot?”Indirect answer–In 2006 and 2007 (haven’t seen the figures lately), HBO made a billion dollars in profit (not revenue, profit). That’s how. They aren’t in the same ratings game as the others, have very deep pockets, and hits–at this juncture, given the somewhat dearth of them in the last few years–is what they need now. It seemed worth the risk, and must have been, given the renewal after only one show.

    • Amanda Lotz on October 9, 2010 at 7:34 PM

      Wow Tausif, there is potentially a semester’s worth of television economics here. The short of it is that there IS a radical difference between a subscription based net and an advertiser based one. One tries to maintain subscribers, the other has to sell advertisers in each moment of every day. It leads to radically different programming strategies. If you are really interested in more, I have a chapter in the collection Cable Visions that addresses this. The basic cable channel is sort of a hybrid. The fact that they get some subscription revenue helps them get by with a smaller audience than broadcast. The two revenue streams are important, and many have much different strategies for the rest of the program day/night that affect the broader economics as well.

      Most all the channels, broadcast and cable, are part of large multi-national conglomerates (like Time Warner, Disney, News Corp. NBC Universal (Comcast)). It is difficult to say what difference this makes. Lots of people have ideas, but few have tested them out in any meaningful way. The main thing I’d note is the prevalence of this ownership configuration. Of all the channels we’ve all referenced here, AMC is the closest to an independent, but still part of a small conglomerate (Rainbow), so I’d tend to say that HBO’s ownership under the Time Warner umbrella isn’t likely a distinguishing factor.

      PBS is a whole other thing entirely. Non-commercial mandate–the only entity of all of these that has some meaningful mandate to “serve,” which might, in theory, lead to more risk taking and unconventional programming (okay, the broadcasters should serve as well, but that seems unlikely to change at this point). The tricky thing–which you address–is that often being “more creative” can have positive commercial outcomes. But sometimes not. That is the real dilemma all of the folks working in these industries try to make sense of and control, but creative industries have the reputation of being far less predictable than other industries.

      By outlet status, I mean that we’d expect an upstart (FOX back in the day, WB, CW) to behave differently than an established network, or that a dominant network is likely to program differently than the one in 4th place.

      • Tausif Khan on October 9, 2010 at 10:18 PM

        “One tries to maintain subscribers, the other has to sell advertisers in each moment of every day.”

        One commonality I find here in terms of the burden of funding shows that challenge current thought (Firefly-Atheism, Arrested Development-conventions of traditional sitcoms) is that they have to please the people that pay the bills and therefore find it tricky to find large audiences (many subscribers) or people willing to support the show through ad purchases (companies don’t want a backlash associating their product with the show).

        “That is the real dilemma all of the folks working in these industries try to make sense of and control, but creative industries have the reputation of being far less predictable than other industries.”

        Therefore my question ends up being how do we fund the most innovative art? Were Joss Whedon and Felicia Day correct to go to the internet with Dr. Horrible and The Guild? Is it sustainable? Is sustainability something we would like to see with art? Do economic models hurt the ability to challenging art?

        What is the possibility of producing a work of art that will challenge (may be upset) people who are to fund that very same programming (read would it ever be possible for a program like Yes, Minister or The (British) Office to be successful in the United States)?

        • Amanda Lotz on October 11, 2010 at 8:54 AM

          These are good examples that are testing the boundaries. I think it remains to be seen whether creators could sustain an ongoing production through these models, but tests like these are crucial to evolving the model. This is very much a time of flux as the failure of old economic models is leading to experimentation that may develop new norms. Some might point to The Shield as the kind of program you suggest. It pushed creative boundaries and garnered a lot of protest originally. Many advertisers initially pulled out, but as the show developed and advertisers saw that it reached an audience that liked boundary defying programming that they couldn’t reach elsewhere, they returned.

      • Tausif Khan on October 10, 2010 at 1:59 PM

        Can you explain how PBS is different from HBO, AMC and Showtime in terms of the corporate structure. Even though PBS has a mandate to serve they still worry about making enough money to provide programming to the public. In this I don’t see much difference between PBS and premium cable models except in the case of PBS the government plays a role in content formation (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A40188-2005Jan26.html)

        • Amanda Lotz on October 11, 2010 at 8:49 AM

          The Wikipedia entry on PBS gives a decent overview of PBS, but not a lot about funding. In short, PBS is a loose consortium of local education stations (the power is at the local level). Stations are funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting which gets money from Congress and through national level donations, and through corporate and individual donations to the stations. I don’t have the figures in front of me but the Congressional funding has steadily declined. One result has been greater reliance on corporate donations, which does introduce many of the dilemmas of a commercial system, although I think it is fair to say it is not the same. The stations often license programs from each other to cover the production costs. (This is not my specialty–so those who know more feel free to chime in).

          To answer your question, I’d say PBS is trying to cover programming costs, the commercial networks (whether ad or subscriber supported) are trying to make profits. We should have different measures of success. PBS could create content that doesn’t reach a broad audience, but might be considered a success because of its creative or artistic innovation or by serving a segment of the population commercial broadcasters would not serve or prioritize. It is much less likely the case that a commercial network would ever consider something that loses money a success.