NBCU Names Zucker CEO

NEW YORK General Electric has named Jeff Zucker president and CEO at NBC Universal. He succeeds his longtime mentor Bob Wright. Zucker had previously helmed the company’s TV operations.

The decision was finalized and announced internally to key execs at a GE management meeting two weeks ago by GE chairman Jeff Immelt, sources said. Wright has been the top executive at NBC for 21 years, when, at age 42 in 1986, then GE chairman Jack Welch moved him over to run NBC (he also kept his duties at the parent company).

His elevation comes amid myriad executive change at the company, as Immelt moves to shore up the network that over the past several years has slipped from first to fourth in the key 18-49 demo. NBC has moved up a bit this season, but that was mostly due to the network airing Sunday Night Football in the fall. Its 18-49 numbers are expected to moderate now that football season is over.

There are some critics of Zucker who note that it was under his reign that NBC’s ratings fell significantly, and wonder why he should be rewarded for that. Immelt has not addressed that with specific comments, but showed his support of Zucker by promoting him into his current position two years ago.

Zucker had served as entertainment president of NBC for a few years before turning the reigns over to Kevin Reilly. Even then, he kept his hand in the selection of programming.

Immelt recently moved out Keith Turner as NBC sales president, replacing him with Michael Pilot, a GE executive, an indication that Immelt wants to put his own team into place. Turner paid the price for NBC’s upfront ad take slipping to $1.9 billion from $2.9 billion in the past year, though some media buyers said Turner was being made the scapegoat for the programming side.

“He can only sell what they put on the air, and those shows have not been very good,” one media buyer told Mediaweek after Turner departed.

But sources at NBC said there clearly is a move on to change the corporate image of NBC, which has been more “buttoned up” than the other networks. Zucker, clearly, has been the executive at NBC Universal most comfortable and willing and open to talking with the press.

Zucker joined NBC out of college in 1986 to work in research. Three years later, he became executive producer of the Today show, where he made his name within the organization and the industry.

He was bumped up to run the entertainment division in 2000, and in 2004 was put in charge of all NBCU TV operations.

This story updates and corrects an earlier item that incorrectly stated Jeff Zucker would be named CEO of GE.