Knives come out at networks; NBC's Zucker and CNN's Klein are gone
Saturday, September 25, 2010
They began as Emmy-winning television producers and wound up running networks, each viewing himself as a mold-breaking innovator and each running smack into the reality of declining ratings.
Jeff Zucker announced Friday that he will step down as chief executive of NBC Universal, a move that industry insiders viewed as inevitable after Comcast struck a deal to buy the company from General Electric. Zucker's involuntary departure will take place when the cable giant closes the deal, probably by year's end, leaving the question of a successor looming over NBC's top-rated newscasts and struggling entertainment division.
Zucker's announcement came hours after news broke that Jon Klein had been fired as president of CNN, where a plunge in prime-time viewership recently prompted him to hire such hosts as British newspaper-editor-turned-talent-show-judge Piers Morgan and scandal-tainted former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Ken Jautz, the CNN veteran who has boosted the ratings of sister network HLN, formerly Headline News, will take over CNN's U.S. division.
Zucker said he was not surprised: "Ninety-nine times out of 100, when a company spends billions to buy another company, this is what happens. It became increasingly clear to me over the last few months that this is what the direction would be.
"I've had a tremendous amount of autonomy running the company," he said. Under Comcast, "it was going to be different, and probably not as much fun for me."
But, he added, "if you ask me how I feel emotionally, I would be disingenuous not to say it's quite bittersweet. You can't spend 24 1/2 years of your life in one place and not be incredibly emotionally invested in it. There are 15,000 employees here, and I know most of them. I know every secret of this place. That makes it very tough."
The departures, along with the resignation of ABC News President David Westin, come as both broadcast and cable networks are struggling to cut costs while holding onto shrinking audiences who spend more time online and elsewhere. CNN must find a way to make straight news viable in a cable universe increasingly saturated with opinion, while Comcast must decide how to boost the fortunes of a network, NBC, that it valued at zero in a bid for the company's more lucrative cable properties.
Zucker's ouster, which was confirmed in a meeting two weeks ago with Comcast Chief Operating Officer Steve Burke, ends a run that took him from producing the "Today" show with Katie Couric to the helm of a company that includes NBC, USA, MSNBC, CNBC and Universal Pictures, plus the Bravo, Oxygen and Syfy cable networks.
"Jeff has been a steadfast supporter of the news division," NBC News President Steve Capus said. "He installed a great spirit of teamwork, and all of us thrived under that. . . . He's the biggest cheerleader we've had and someone who grew up here."
Klein, 52, got the news that his six-year run was over in a brief meeting Wednesday with CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton. In an interview, he described his new unemployment status as "very sudden." He put it more colorfully to New York magazine: "People get shot in our business. I got shot."
Klein's professional execution puts CNN's established Atlanta brass more firmly in control. Klein had expected a decision on his future to be made sometime after the debut of the prime-time show he is launching next month with Spitzer and Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker. "I'm disappointed not to be able to see these shows to the promised land," he told The Washington Post.
Andrew Heyward, a former CBS News president, said that Zucker and Klein, who previously worked for CBS, have something in common. "These are smart, young, Ivy League-educated guys who are animated by a confidence that enables them to continue despite adversity and the inevitable setbacks and knocks of television," he said. "What I admire about both is they were willing to take risks and their zest for competition in the business. I hope we don't see a trend toward less and less colorful executives who are more corporate types."