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NBC and Zucker: The Downward Spiral

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Maybe it's time I made something clear.

Back when I was a cocky 23-year-old producer at WSVN in Miami, I was heavily courted by a guy named Don Browne who at the time was the general manager of NBC's owned and operated station in Miami, WTVJ. He badly wanted me to jump ship and become his 11pm producer and he was willing to blow big, billowing clouds of smoke up my ass to make it happen; among the compliments he lavished on me during one particular power lunch between the two of us was a claim that he saw in me the next Jeff Zucker. Now in 1993, Zucker was considered NBC's new boy wonder -- named executive producer of the Today Show at just 26-years-old. So even though I had basically stumbled into TV and had yet to take the entire industry the least bit seriously, I understood that a big-gun at NBC -- and Browne was a Jedi Master in the ways of the Peacock, having been the executive VP of news for NBC at one point -- mentioning me in the same breath as Zucker wasn't the kind of flattery you simply shrugged off. And I didn't -- even though I made the choice to stay at WSVN briefly before heading to Los Angeles to work for KCBS.

I say that I didn't shrug it off because I always kept Browne's praise in the back of my mind and in late 1997 when it became clear that I had allowed myself to become little more than comfortable in my discomfort at KCBS, I put out feelers to Don Browne -- who had expressed a genuine desire to keep in touch with me and promised to always take my call if I felt like I wanted to talk about my career, the business, whatever -- and sure enough, he welcomed the idea of making room for me at WTVJ. As it turned out, the station was going through a regime change, with another NBC wunderkind, 28-year-old Ramon Escobar, having just taken the reins as news director. Browne flew me to Miami, had me meet with everyone and made me an offer I honestly couldn't refuse -- which kind of befit his status as an intimidating Godfather within the NBC power structure.

I'll always be glad I made the decision to go to WTVJ, as it remains one of the best work experiences of my career -- the people there more like family than coworkers. The thing to keep in mind, though, is that one of Don Browne's major selling points during his attempt to draft me was that I wouldn't be working for just anyone -- I'd be working for NBC. To hammer that reality home, he even flew me to New York City to visit 30 Rock; sit in on the Today Show; make it crystal clear that I was going to be a part of something extraordinary. The entire experience was exhilarating -- and it marked the first time that I truly appreciated the career that I had stepped in by accident, the abilities that I had largely taken for granted up to that point.

Bottom line: I was proud to work at NBC. So proud in fact that I continued to work for the company when I moved back out to L.A. with the wife that I had met at WTVJ. So proud that I couldn't have been more thrilled that my shot at personal and professional rebirth in the wake of 9/11 came from MSNBC and my former news director, Ramon Escobar.

I can occasionally be a bit of a feisty pain in the ass as an employee -- I believe that most decent newspeople are -- but that doesn't mean that I didn't spend years thinking of NBC as my home. It was, to me at least, a shining beacon of terrific programming and rock solid journalism, and one that I felt honored to be a part of.

I bring this up because it should be obvious by now that I pick on NBC quite a bit in the stuff that I write here and for my own blog. Many of my regular readers have noticed and even confronted me on the seemingly curious fact that I take aim at NBC Universal far more than I even do Fox News Channel.

So I guess I felt like it was time to explain myself: Call it tough love -- borne mostly out of sadness, frustration and, occasionally, outright anger.

Over the past few years, I've watched NBC go from being the network I believed was consistently devoted to excellence above every other consideration -- committed to the notion that, as Don Browne used to say, "First be best, then be first" -- to one that will sacrifice not just quality but any and all ethical considerations in a relentless pursuit of profit. Don't get me wrong, as a company NBC is in the business of making money and there's nothing at all wrong with that -- it just used to achieve that end by offering audiences the best programming and news coverage on television. It was best, which is why it was first, which is why it made money. But somewhere along the line network executives -- particularly and ironically Jeff Zucker, who was named CEO of NBC TV in 2005 and then CEO of the NBC Universal empire in 2007 -- decided that cash would be the only consideration, that it could be amassed without even earning it by means of great shows and a consistently above-the-board news operation at the highest levels of management, and that the rise of cable and non-traditional media provided the perfect excuse for making this kind of major paradigm shift. The shareholders likely thought Zucker was brilliant for expanding NBC's properties across several platforms then turning each into a giant promotional machine for the others until "NBC product placement" was all any NBC show or network was good for; for hiring a worthless, self-obsessed hack like Ben Silverman to dumb down prime time; for bringing in bags of money while slashing costs, culminating in the cynical for-profit-only ploy that put Jay Leno in prime time five nights a week. Unfortunately, while get-rich-quick schemes tend to work well in the short-term, they can be devastating long-term -- and Zucker's not so myopic that he shouldn't have realized this about the business model he'd adopted. There was no meat in the tasty-looking sandwich he was serving day after day, and with the collapse of the Leno show, the impending unceremonious exit of Conan O'Brien and the P.R. cataclysm both have caused for the network, almost everyone, maybe even the mighty shareholders looking down from Olympus, can now see that.

What's happened at NBC -- already a perennially anemic network -- over the past week has been, quite simply, one of the most shameful fiascoes in the history of modern broadcast television. We're talking one for the ages. Pushing out Leno to keep Conan O'Brien was questionable enough a move; giving Leno a prime time slot despite the threat of rebellion from the affiliates whose revenue stream you'd be damming up, just because it'd be a corporate cash cow, was worse; pulling the plug to save a giant deal with Comcast Cable was worse still. Now this: taking back the show that was given to Conan to keep him from jumping ship all to keep Leno from jumping ship -- forcing Conan to gracefully and humbly bow out because he refuses to tarnish the good name of a legendary NBC brand, one that NBC itself apparently has no compunction about making radioactive. It's breathtaking, sociopathic incompetence. It doesn't even make good business sense because, once again, the short-term fears of the twitchiest suits might be salved -- Leno's deadly show at 10pm is six feet under and Conan's underperforming stint on The Tonight Show is cut short -- but the chilling effect that this will have not only on audiences but on any young talent from which you might hope to cultivate loyalty is utterly decimated. Why should anyone trust anything an NBC executive says from here on out?

This is the problem NBC Entertainment Chief Jeff Gaspin is facing right now as he tries to clean up the mess and duck the fire caused by the spectacular implosion of NBC's 10pm and late night lineup (to say nothing of what was left of the network's tattered reputation) and the exit of one of its marquee talents -- the disaster that "boy wonder" Jeff Zucker essentially created. And where is Zucker while all this is going on -- while Gaspin's head is in the crosshairs? Who knows. He hasn't made a public appearance or granted an interview since the crap started rolling downhill last week; I'd like to think that he's in a bunker somewhere honorably falling on his sword, but given that his contract was just bafflingly renewed for another three years, that seems an unlikely scenario. Make no mistake, though -- that's exactly what needs to happen.

I'm willing to concede that Jeff Zucker's meteoric rise was made possible only by his seemingly bottomless reservoir of creative short-term fixes for whatever problems he was confronting at any particular moment, and that the shareholders had demanded that he cut costs and increase profits. But a willingness to take potentially profitable gambles, while admirable, comes with an inherent risk: Somebody needs to pay when a poorly thought-out experiment -- a shockingly obvious "quick fix" -- fails to the tune of millions of dollars, the loss of a bankable star, and a public relations nightmare that has the potential to threaten a proposed mega-merger. And there's no doubt that the person who should pay for this instantly legendary clusterfuck is the man at the top who instigated the whole thing: Jeff Zucker.

That likely won't happen, of course. In fact, if you believe what David Carr of the New York Times posted on Twitter yesterday, behind the scenes Zucker is walking around blaming Conan for letting him down by delivering a low-rated show. If this is true, it's astonishing while, strangely, not the least bit surprising -- and it makes Zucker the personification of all that's wrong with corporate America these days. No one takes responsibility; everyone passes the buck; it's always the fault of the victim; and when everything falls apart and the whole thing goes to shit while you're in charge, you get to keep your high-paying job and arrogantly pretend like nothing ever happened.

Here's how it should work: You roll the dice and lose -- you pay up and leave. It feels like anything but a coincidence, though, that neither the guy who created this disaster -- Zucker -- nor the guy who will immediately benefit from it on the air -- Leno -- has the good sense to put humility above ego and step aside. Neither, apparently, will accept the consequences of his actions or an unlucky turn of the cards.

For Leno it's really no surprise: He's a good guy but he's been coasting on ironically aimless ambition, unable to tell you why he wants what he wants only that he wants it, for years. But Zucker shouldn't be able to delude himself; the wreckage piled around him is simply too deep to ignore. NBC is now in ruins, and it happened under his watch and because of his actions.

I never did turn out to be Jeff Zucker, obviously. I was never as focused, didn't have the Harvard education and generally didn't care as much about the business of television as he did. True, I unfortunately didn't get to be a CEO and make ten million a year. But I also won't go down in history as the man who destroyed NBC.

All I'll do is be heartbroken that it happened.