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NBC Universal CEO to leave when Comcast takes over
NEW YORK (AP) - NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker, who rose from a youthful producer at the “Today” show to run the multifaceted media business, said he would step down after cable provider Comcast takes control of the company later this year.
Zucker, the company’s CEO, told employees of his planned departure in an e-mail he sent Friday, a day after he set terms of his exit deal.
The possible change-in-command had been looming since last December when Comcast Corp. agreed to buy a 51 percent stake in NBC Universal from General Electric Co. That deal still hasn’t cleared regulatory hurdles, but that is expected around the end of the year.
Zucker said it was becoming clear over the past few months that an exit is looming, and that he understood companies like to put in their own management teams in such takeovers. Two weeks ago, Comcast’s chief operating officer, Steve Burke, told Zucker that a change would be made when the deal was complete.
“I had already gotten comfortable with that idea,” he said. “I did not want to be a guest in my own house.”
While NBC’s news division and late-night programming has remained strong, Zucker presided over the downfall of NBC’s prime-time lineup from its 1990s dominance in the “Friends” era to its past few years as a struggling fourth-place network.
He contends that NBC’s entertainment troubles gets a disproportionate amount of attention given NBC Universal’s success with cable networks. NBC Universal owns the NBC and Telemundo television networks along with 26 TV stations; cable channels USA, Bravo, Oxygen, Syfy, CNBC and others; the Universal Pictures movie studio and Focus Features; theme parks in California, Florida and Japan; and has part ownership of online video site Hulu.
“You’ve got to give us credit for the other stuff and, by the way, the other stuff is far more important financially,” he said.
In the most recent quarter through June, financial results improved at the company mostly because of a rebound in advertising. Operating profit grew 13 percent to $607 million, with advertising, an improving performance by movies and theme park sales responsible.
Zucker’s contract had been renewed last year to run through January 2013 with an annual salary of $6.3 million and a guaranteed annual bonus of $1.5 million. If he leaves by January, he can expect at least a $15.6 million check.
General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt said in a note to some GE leaders on Tuesday that Zucker has been “creative and composed” during turbulent times.
“Jeff has been a tough-minded, inclusive and innovative leader of NBC Universal,” Immelt wrote. “He has always stepped up when the company needed him. He never blinked when it came to tough decisions.”
NBC’s experiment last season putting Jay Leno in prime time proved a spectacular failure, blowing up further when Conan O’Brien refused to move to a later time slot to accommodate Leno’s return to late night. The Winter Olympics in Vancouver last year, while a ratings winner for NBC, cost the company a $223 million loss because rights negotiations were concluded in a different economic climate.
His inability to turn around NBC entertainment remains his biggest regret, he said. But after one week of the season, and a strong start for the much-hyped “The Event,” Zucker said he sees “the seeds of a turnaround being planted.”
Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce said Zucker’s departure was expected because of the active role of Burke, a former ABC executive. While Joyce didn’t see NBCU’s performance as a reason for removing Zucker, “one could question who was responsible for the NBC network’s ratings slippage over time.”
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