Jeff Zucker: Portrait Of An Upwards-Failing ChampionWhat better après-puff-piece aperitif to follow the NY Times's profile of a content-hungry Time Warner than Portfolio's equally attentive servicing of NBC Universal oligarch, Jeff Zucker? Interviewed at his ballroom-sized corner office at 30 Rock, the reporter at first can't resist infantilizing his subject: "Zucker has an appealing, ruddy tint that lends him a cherubic appearance," reads one willies-inducing passage. "When he sits back, his feet actually lift off from the floor a bit, like a boy taking a turn on someone else’s throne." (We'll assume the part that read, "He then soils his diaper, a mess quickly attended to by the youngest and prettiest of his three assistants..." was edited for space.)But let not his gnome-like stature fool you: Zucker's quick rise to supreme power at the G.E.-held media conglomerate was no upwards-failing accident. This former "captain of his high-school tennis team" applies the same ruthless brutality of his deadly slices and backhands to the business of hacking away the fat hindering a rapidly evolving medium:
Zucker’s most audacious and controversial move was to dramatically slash the number of pilots NBC will produce each season. Instead of about 20, he’s funding about five. [...] Zucker relishes pointing out that for every 80 pilots made, only eight become shows and just one of those becomes a hit. That ratio, he explains, works only if your hits generate enough money to pay for all those misses. But in today’s fragmented media landscape, that math has broken down, leaving the networks scrambling to monetize their content in new ways, via the Web, DVDs, and digital downloads. [...] Zucker has come under fire for ditching the pilots, but Ben Silverman, Zucker’s choice to run NBC Television and the man who must implement the new mandate, is diplomatic about its reception in the creative community: “There are moments of loneliness when you are out in front.”
Silverman is right. Like the amazing accomplishments of the U.S. Olympic swim team giving their network its best ratings in two-and-a-half years, sometimes you simply have to revel in the glorious solitude that comes with being a full pool-length ahead of your nearest competitor. (Not ratings-wise, of course—he wouldn't have even qualified if that was the criteria—but for the sheer audacity of his vision.) Yes, for the misunderstood mavericks of TV 2.0, it's merely a matter of confidently zigging while the other guy zags, then sitting down with a glass of 130-year-old Scotch poured over peacock-shaped ice cubes to take in the fruits of your visionary, Antonio Sabato Jr.-on-a-unicycle labors.