Jeff Zucker out as head of NBC Universal

Jeff Zucker arrives at the premiere of
Jeff Zucker arrives at the premiere of "Love Happens" in Los Angeles in 2009. (Matt Sayles - AP)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 3:24 PM

Jeff Zucker is stepping aside as chief executive of NBC Universal, his storied and sometimes rocky career cut short by Comcast's imminent takeover of the company.

Zucker is a newsman who rose to the top of an entertainment conglomerate, the onetime "Today" producer who nurtured such stars as Katie Couric but foundered in trying to come up with hit shows in prime time.

From the moment Comcast sealed the deal to buy NBC from General Electric late last year, industry insiders have doubted that Zucker, 45, would survive the transition. He told his staff by e-mail Friday morning that he will step down when the cable giant completes the acquisition, probably by year's end. There was no word on an eventual replacement, but Zucker's pending departure is certain to fuel anxiety at the network over the coming transition.

"I have spent my entire adult life here, more than 24 years," Zucker told his staff in a note. "This is the only place I have ever worked. The only professional thing I have ever known. I met my wife here, enjoyed the birth of our four children in that time, worked in almost every division of the company.

" . . . I've spent the last 24 years thinking only about NBC Universal, and never contemplated anything else. I haven't even begun to think about the next chapter. But I wanted to be honest with you about this news as soon as I could. I love NBC Universal. And always will. And I am grateful to each of you."

Zucker, who joined the network straight out of Harvard, realized in discussions with Comcast executives in recent months that he was unlikely to remain in his job, colleagues say. But that became unmistakably clear two weeks ago during a meeting with Comcast chief operating officer Steve Burke. Zucker made the news public Friday in the belief that it would probably leak out.

"The experiment with Zucker was to promote someone from news over to entertainment," says industry analyst Andrew Tyndall. "The absolute crown jewel of his career was the way he established 'Today' as the dominant morning show and one of the crown jewels of NBC News. Everything he did afterward in the entertainment field didn't show the same dazzling success."

Zucker had the proverbial meteoric rise, serving for a time as Tom Brokaw's executive producer at "NBC Nightly News." He kept climbing the corporate ladder, becoming president of the NBC Universal Television Group in 2004 and taking the CEO job three years later.

But while the major NBC News shows remained in first place, Zucker struggled with a prime-time lineup that once dominated television, in the era of "Friends" and "Seinfeld," but fell to fourth place. His most high-profile effort was to cut programming costs by giving Jay Leno a 10 p.m. show and replace him with Conan O'Brien, a double-barreled disaster. Tyndall called that "the low point of his tenure."

Zucker said in an interview earlier this year that he was considering running for political office in New York someday. Now he will have plenty of free time.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company