NBCU’s Zucker Mum on Comcast Deal

“There is not a lot to say,” NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker said here Thursday when asked about the potential sale of a 51 percent stake in his company to cable giant Comcast Corp.

“I’m incredibly interested to see what will happen…Time will tell.”

He made his comments in a chat with CNBC anchor Erin Burnett at the Paley Center Thursday morning after several moments of laughter and silence on his part in reaction to the interviewer’s opening question. She had asked whether he was enjoying his last few days reporting to a guy named Jeff, namely GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt.

Zucker then quipped: “I knew I shouldn’t have asked Erin” to do this interview.

If NBCU was bought by anyone, what is the key driver and benefit for the acquirer, Burnett also asked her boss.

“They’re looking at the value of content,” and the strength of NBCU’s assets, including the growth of the company’s cable networks, Zucker argued.

“Today NBC Universal is a vastly different company” than when NBC was founded, with more than two-thirds of the company today having nothing to do with either NBC or Universal. He reiterated that 75 percent of profits come from the core cable networks, which Zucker said is still not widely understood.

Questioned whether people will pay for content in digital formats, he argued that “the interest in NBC Universal proves that there is value.” He added: “Quality content wins out.”

Burnett also asked Zucker about some of his experiments with new approaches and models, such as the move to give Jay Leno a daily 10 p.m. talk show.

Discussing Leno, Zucker said he felt it was “unfortunate” that some of his previous comments on the production cost efficiency of Leno’s talk show made it seem like NBCU is more focused on making money than on producing memorable TV. Instead, he argued his team wants to do “whatever it takes to put on the best television.”

That also goes for news operations at a time when everyone can be a journalist or citizen reporter or Twitter user. “It’s cheap to be first, but expensive to be right,” Zucker said. NBCU is investing in “credibility and experience,” he added.

Asked about the network affiliate system, Zucker said: “We don’t want to throw it out. We think it still works incredibly well,” even though the economics need to be fixed. “We shouldn’t diminish that” and underestimate its power.

Asked by TiVo CEO Tom Rogers how companies can react to a drop in profitability at their TV stations in recent years, Zucker responded:

“We can’t look at this as a TV station anymore,” suggesting that companies must instead look at the broader local media space as an opportunity. Plus, cost measures have been key.

Overall, he said he is more upbeat about the local business going into 2010 than in a while.
NBCU’s local business could see double-digit growth in the fourth quarter for the first time in more than two years, he said.

Asked about a push by CBS and Fox to get retransmission fees from distributors, Zucker said the market seems to be increasingly moving into that direction. “We would expect to play in that, and that would be very advantageous,” he said. Asked how long this shift in business models will take to play out, he suggested three to four years.

Burnett also asked her boss Thursday whether he still believes spending a lot of money on movies and prime time shows, even though hits are hard to predict.

“We certainly believe in spending appropriately,” Zucker said. Discussing TV, he added “we probably gotta do a better job…at being smarter” in prime time.

Asked about the state of the advertising market, Zucker said “the auto market feels a little better.”

Vancouver Olympics ad sales are “going quite well,” and the firm is on track to do well.

Will the 2014 and 2016 Games be on NBC? “It’s something we would like to stay in and continue,” but only if it makes financial sense, Zucker said.

Nielsen Business Media