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Jeff Zucker Talks NBC & the Media-Entertainment Future

Jeff Zucker, Jan. 20, 2011 (WBUR/Jesse Costa)

Lots going on in TV land these days.

Larry King, out. Piers Morgan, in. Oprah, headed off stage. Regis Philbin, too. NBC is bringing comedy to the ten o’clock slot.

And then there’s the big corporate stuff. This week, the FCC approved the mega-merger of Comcast and NBC Universal.  Comcast says it will be awesome. Critics say you should be afraid, and mad as hell about the cable giant moving in.

And then there’s the big picture – TV migrating like crazy to the web. It’s time to think about what it all means for televion, for news, for entertainment.

We speak with outgoing NBC Universal chief, Jeff Zucker.

-Tom Ashbrook


Jeff Zucker, outgoing president and CEO of NBC Universal, where he spent more than two decades – his entire working life. He will be stepping down as CEO next Friday with the merger of Comcast and NBC, following the FCC’s approval.

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  • Zeno

    IMO its a bad idea to permit this deal to a monopoly like Comcast. A content delivery service now owns the content that’s being delivered is a conflict of interest. Should they change their name to ConCast?

    Comcast wins government approval to take over NBC:


  • Grady Lee Howard

    The spin may vary slightly, but when you compare network news and pubic affairs, or cable news and public affairs they seem to follow the same menu and schedule. Insider pundits formulate versions corporate moguls will approve. The gestalt effect is not much different than state media in an authoritarian dictatorship, except for the ads and product placements. Mergers can only strengthen this condition.

    You’d at first think the web invites public comment, but the medias are beginning aggressive filtering and selective access in the same way oldtime editorial pages were able to publish or reject letters. Dissent goes to the hinderlands, and the disgruntled can now be tracked for later retribution and re-education. The USA and China are refining the model every second. Soon the world will not only be global, but also seamless.

    On Point is one of the last sparks of free speech. Is it flickering out?

  • Al Dorman

    Let’s get some balance in the discussion, I’d propose Sen. Franken – but that might get too intense even for Tom Ashbrook.

  • Worried for the country (MA)

    Zucker ran NBC into the ground with his go left news strategy. He never would have lasted if Jack Welch was running GE.

  • Paul (NYC)

    NBC owns a 30% stake in Hulu.com, a seemingly direct threat to Comcast. Will Comcast use that stake to grow into online distribution or to diminish Hulu?

  • Al Dorman

    @ Worried:
    Are you talking about the 10.5 M that watch Brian Williams or some obscure hacks on cable that only people like you “worry” about.

  • John

    Will there be any synergies between Comcast and the Microwave and Programming division of NBC/GE?

  • Rex, Washington, DC

    Ask jack Donaghy if this means a return of Arrested Development

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    Grady, if NBC puts entertainment shows on the Internet, maybe they’d get more viewers (and less revenue?)

    As to news, once we got the remote, I think Americans got very fickle. Certainly I did. I watch all three newses if I watch any, and if I miss something, I can go online for what I missed. I don’t use that for news, but rather for what I expect a swath of American’s to be tuned to, or what the megalopoly expects us to be consumed by.

    If you get your news from Good Morning America, or Comcast’s version of it (online or on network), somebody is likely to point out to you, that such news is “fluff,” and that has been so for a long time.

  • Kevin

    Hopefully in a few years everyone will be podcasting great content over the web and Comcast will be just a utility company. Like water and electricity.

  • John from Plainville Ma

    At this point, I find it close to unnecessary to watch cable TV. I watch all of my movies and any tv show I want to watch is on Netflix which I can just plug into the TV from my laptop. In order to watch the news and the Patriot games, I bought a digital antennae which allows me about 8-15 PBS and local network channels at any given time. This setup is more than enough to satisfy 90% or more of my viewing needs. And let’s see, for a 60 dollar up front fee for a digital antennae and a netflix subscription (12 bucks a month)I can save over a thousand bucks a year in cable tv costs. Now I am not paying for as much advertising and not paying to waste my time in front of TV programming that maybe I never really wanted to watch in the first place.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    Zucker says we’ve always been attracted to come-back stories. Well, I’ve noticed that network TV seems to expect that the music that says “A dead body is about to be shown” will grab our attention, that we will watch until the dead body appears. With me, that fails, totally. I understand the draw, but I figure that somebody else will deal with it. I recognize that the dead body is elsewhere.
    Similarly about the music that says, Somebody is about to fall in love, or express that love. I understand that physiologically my body says to Watch That. But I figure it’s somebody else’s business.
    I figure people with boring lives need that, however.
    I figure what I need from the box is human faces. I need to exercise that muscle. Sometimes “acting” can do that, but not fake acting (if you know what I mean). I need the real thing, as close as possible. That is available, mostly on PBS.

  • Mary A. Fulton

    I’ll be watching to see what happens, as I tend to distrust large conglomerates, especially in media. I tend to be more concerned about the death of newspapers, and with them, actual, on-the-ground reporting. (Thanks, NPR, for being one organization that still supports actual reporting instead of just “repeating.” But I must also speak up for unplugged people. We unplugged our cable service over a year ago and have not watched any TV since. So my family is not one of those gathering around the so-called TV hearth, except if it is to watch a movie that we chose. So all the drama over shows and stars and such is just so much noise to us.

  • http://ncpr.org stillin

    I always remember t.v. is the plug in drug. I don’t watch any news on t.v., but I love Ovation ( all art) and sometimes Nat.Geo…but after reading the comment on how to hook up that digital antenna I hope to try that once the snow is off the roof. All said, I think t.v. keeps Americans dysfunctional, if you turn the sound off and just watch what is heppening, it is often the epitomy of bad manners, pushing, hitting, shoving, killng, disappearing…just so much junk as we all know. Without a lot of t.v. you will live much richer, REAL life. I also think there is a link between children who are struggling with relating to their OWN reality in their households, and the amount of time they will desire to spend in front of the t.v. or with a computer, anything to get away from reality. I try to use the t.v. as a last resort when I am done drawing, painting, writing, chopping wood, cooking, or running my dogs out in the woods or river. Only then, do I think, should I use that drug today and I am serious.

  • BHA – Vermont

    I’m sure we are not the ‘normal’ family but we pretty don’t watch any of the video sources mentioned with regularity.

    There is probably more time spent watching ice skating on IceNetworks (internet only) than any other ‘channel’.

    We watch Survivor, The Amazing Race and the Olympics. Fortunately we get Canadian channels though they seem to be moving toward the US network format of “Commentator Pairs Babbling” and “Human Interest Profiles” over showing athletes doing what they train for daily for years and years and years.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    I heard Jeff Zucker on Charlie Rose in early December, and the open question was What Are You Going to Do Next?
    Please do an online video equivalent of OnPoint, for when I eventually (at age 80) retire and can spend the time to view it.

    You can use CNN, with an international scope. We need that.

  • martha mayo

    Why is there non television in America that regularly brings great American literature to the viewer. There used to be shows of great plays followed by discussion. Can we not do an American Masterpiece Theater? If as you say television is not lowering its standards why is this not done.?

  • John from Plainville MA


    You dont ahve to worry about the snow at all–you just sit it right next to the tv and plug it into the co-axial cable plug in the back of your tv. No rooftop climbing or anything. Its great!

  • Jason

    NBC I love some of the shows you used to have namely Studio 60 on the Sunset strip, The Black Donnellys and Kings !!! Oh my why did you give up on these shows? IMHO These shows were unlike anything on at their time. PLease please tell me why :)

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    Zucker says we still mount Shakespeare on Broadway. Does he know how much time it takes to travel from X to Y, to find parking — plus time to dress appropriately, plus time to unwind afterwards?
    Am I questioning the role of formal live entertainment?
    And I’m questioning the cheap, off-the-shelf entertainment that requires no travel time but offers little.
    But what is the social role of attending a Broadway show? It has more role than sitting in front of the TV.
    Children under the age of 18 with their YouTube traditions will have to inform us what is most meaningful to them. If anything. The schools I used to attend wouldn’t allow anything that wasn’t live and able to be supervised (including phone calls). Saturday afternoon if you had the equipment you could play music. The isolation was supposed to be nurturing, like a nest. It’s hard to imagine the connectedness now available. Where is the voice of the kids?

  • Steve from Martinez, GA

    Now that cable company Comcast owns NBC, will Comcast schedule 30 Rock at 8 pm, but show it at 12:45?

  • John

    Now that cable company Comcast owns NBC, will Comcast schedule 30 Rock at 8 pm, but show it at 12:45? – Posted by Steve from Martinez, GA

    Wouldn’t that be preferable to telling you it will air sometime between 9 and 5?

  • Lori

    What do I want from TV? For it to be available in rural areas without having to $ub$cribe to a satellite dish company. Digital television was supposed to be so much better – even with expensive antennas now we get no local stations at all in northern Vermont. Comcast isn’t available any where near my town. Neither is high speed internet or cell service. Rural communities continue to be left out and left behind. Internet? An expensive satellite version that doesn’t allow you to watch programs online without violating their FAP. Thank God Quebec still broadcasts the best of American television the old fashioned way – we can pull in a beautiful picture with our rabbit ears.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    Print sources are still better for human consumption than “live” sources in that the human brain can linger where it needs to, skim where possible, time-wise take control.
    So over-the-air, aired content should be COMPLEMENTARY to print media.
    What’s the vision of Zucker as to this complementarity?

  • Peter D

    Five minute commercial pods, pod busters, lower third animations and the like. It’s called CLUTTER. The ratio of clutter to programming has increased over the years. I opted out about ten years ago. No TIVO…I just stopped watching commercial TV.

    Comcast’s ultimate interest in purchasing NBCU is to get enough critical mass to compete with ESPN.

  • Brooke Stanton

    Does Mr. Zucker think the new ways audiences view tv shows will affect the way directors shoot them? Just as Film making changed when we moved from movie screens to television, I think viewing images in a smaller format will change directorial choices, both in length & pacing of scenes and size of shots (epic landscapes vs. closeups).

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    If there has been big international news, I check in the networks before PBS because they have better global video. PBS might send a reporter in a week.
    If I had Arabic fluency, I get the impression that I could access al-Jazirah and network news for me would be upstaged.
    What can Zucker do about that? Chinese news? Maybe BBC will have that.

  • Clinton

    I love 30 Rock, and I’ve been a fan at NBC’s programming choices. I however am about to stop supporting NBC’s programs because of this merger.

    Comcast continues to clamp down and lobby against net-neutrality. This deal is just another step down that road, and I can’t bring myself to support an up-and-coming monopoly.

  • Susan Hall

    With regard to Comcast’s politics, those became evident when, right in the thick of the 2008 election run-up, Comcast moved MSNBC from their standard cable lineup to their special digital collection. All of a sudden, we were no longer receiving MSNBC and had to pay an additional fee in order to watch the liberal take on the election. (None of the other major news outlets were moved.) I am not optimistic about this merger.

    • RS

      Exactly! KomKast showed its true colors when they moved Olbermann and Maddow to the pay tier.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    I am surprised the woman calling about complaints of TV shown in hospitals because of reference to a shower threesome. Hasn’t she noticed that network TV except for the news is either violent or infantile? No in-between? Oh, there is dancing with the stars, which is sometimes beautiful. But you can watch one kind of violence and carnage or the other. TV is inappropriate for hospitals, period, IMHO!

  • http://WBUR.org George Peo

    With cable you can turn off a show but you pay for it anyway.

  • Megan Way

    Mr Zucker’s “this is just the way the world is” attitude about inappropriate, offensive content on television is so cowardly. He certainly has the money to have nannies police his children’s viewing 24/7, but the rest of us always live with the risk that our children will see this garbage at our house or someone else’s. This is why my family doesn’t have cable.

    His fortune has been made off of the visual and moral abuse of our population.

  • DAve

    So, Zucker’s response about the crass and tasteless nature of most network tv would be best summed up in a crass two-word response that isn’t appropriate for this site, but rhymes with “stuck shoe.” The fact that he can blithely tell hospitals and families with children to “turn it off,” means he’s confident that there are enough dumbed-down Americans out there to consume the crap put out by the networks, and to keep their CEOs well-fed. That tells me there is no commercial pressure to produce uplifting, enlightening or educational programming in the US. If that’s the case, I will continue to keep my kids away from it as much as possible. I hope Mr. Zucker does the same with his kids.

  • John

    I agree that people should turn off things they find offensive. That’s what I do. Don’t expect the rest of the world to be censored for you or your children. The parent’s job is to control what they watch, not the network’s.

  • Dave

    You’re right: it’s the parents’ job to control what their kids watch. I am doing that by letting them watch next to nothing! You’re misunderstanding my argument if you think I’m calling for some kind of censorship. I’m calling on the industry to raise its standards and stop being the enemy of families, the enemy of children, and the enemy of civil society in this country. PBS has programs with sex, violence, etc., but they intentionally do not produce such programming with the intention of glorifying it or foisting it upon an audience for whom it is inappropriate and potentially damaging. I think that people who want to see gratuitous sex and violence should have to search for it on niche channels, or buy/rent it for their own private viewing; not the other way around.

    The only thing being censored these days is good quality programming!

  • Heaviest Cat

    I’m from S.WEllfleet, MA. on Cape Cod
    This hour was most disappointing given that we only got the corporate commercial view of the Merger and TV in general.I can’t believe(though I should know better by now)that a “public” radio program would not see fit to also feature a guest wtih a more critical eye towards television and this merger and what it might imply for a democractic society. Instead Zucker was rather glib about the merger nad how ‘good it was for NBC and COMcast”. More sadlyt ,Tom Ashbrook didn’t challenge him on that or even suggest the meaning of concentrated media ownership for the health of a democracy. IS this WBUR’s idea of “objective”, “independent” “public” radio?

  • http://cyberfumes.blogspot.com Dave Eger

    Of course a strategy of monopolization is good for the company. Is it good for everyone else though? I thought that by now we might have learned to avoid the whole too big to fail fiasco. Nothing is really to big to fail, it’s just that whole “the harder they fall” thing that everyone really wants to avoid.

  • Anna Savelesky

    I dropped Satellite TV sic months ago. The only TV I miss is PBS. I do watch as many videos as will come down to me on the computer. I also subscribe to NWPR so I may listen without guilt. I quit the TV service because I couldn’t afford it any more. The programing was so juvenile and stupid that I couldn’t stand wasting my life with the drivel. The quasi news/entertainment was disgusting; adults screaming at each other like babies with wet diapers. If this is all we watch no wonder we have become rude, crude mouth nation. When I mentioned to a young friend that TV must be trying to attract them, he said, “We don’t talk that way; that’s only adults! That says it all.

  • Dee

    Hello Tom,

    I share your conern and others about the loss of the independence voice in this big meager with NBC and

    Truly, it bothers me terribly as I feel we are already
    being so manipulated by the people in corporate America daily with its laissez faire capitalism and its contin-
    ued reliance on US tax payers monies to fund their other exploits.

    As one human rights advocate recently said -while a
    group or company may have a right to conduct business it doesn’t have a right to exploit workers and deplete natural resources and place them and the environment at risk for increased harm.

    Yet, this is exactly what I feel is being done daily and there is very little investigative reporting that
    follows it..

    I would like to know where were the investigative re-
    porters when the casino gamblers and robber barrons on Wall Street were driving our economy into a ditch…

    Or when the GOP gave carte blanc to Bush and Cheney for their illegal wars on Iraq & Afghanistan and raised the national debt to the tune of 11 trillion dollar .(That was from a trillion surplus left over from the Clinton camp…

    Now , the same big spenders(Mitch Mc Connell and John Boehner )are placing stopgap measures on Obama’s spend-
    ing which are impeding financial reforms on Wall St, badly needed health care reform , plus curtailing the
    expansion of environmental oversights and programs for the poor and working class American.

    (Please read this superb report(s)in the New York Times
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/22/us/politics/22spend.html and note the comments by outraged democrats ….

    It seems much of this fanfare about fiscal restraint by the GOP leadership has more to do about preserving the needs of special interest groups than promoting the needs of average American or indeed helping the fragile recovery, along. Dee

    P.S. Today, I am very grateful to the New York Times for covering this story on the budget (which is one of the reasons I keep my NYT subscription and other inde-
    pendent news agencies). Plus, my pledges of support to public and independent radio stations. I am afraid con-
    glomerate news is just giving us a sound bite on this
    and missing the big picture….

  • Andrea Cohen Kiener

    Great conversation! Re: Jeff’s observation that we love a good comeback story – dating back to Shakespeare, I might date the source for that a little earlier. Let’s try winter, night, and a host of heroes from Persephone to Jesus… Little older story line here!

  • Yar From Somerset, KY

    Is the avatar connected by username or the email address? I made one,but will it work?
    This site is a virtual coffee shop for me.
    The regular bloggers are why I come back each day.

  • Gramsci

    I struggled Thursday to find some semblance of edifying information in Zucker’s exhausting, frictionless patter. I have all the respect in the world for Tom’s interviewing, and he did the best he could.

    But to find out, not 48 hours later, that Keith Olbermann was let go by MSNBC? It’s like having listened to Alan Greenspan 48 hours before Lehman Brothers collapsed– why did I waste time listening to someone either cynically evasive or utterly ignorant of what is going down?

    Perhaps next Friday you can, um, return to the topic?

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