JEFF ZUCKER NBC's Superstar Entertainment Chief by Kaya Morgan
All that glitters may just be the peacock. It's no secret that NBC has been, by far, the most successful of all the broadcast networks. According to the Nielsen ratings, out of the top shows in prime time, NBC has racked up some of the most successful winners ever with Friends, E.R., Law & Order, Will & Grace, Scrubs and Law & Order Special Victims Unit. During the upcoming season, NBC is expecting to generate more than $700 million in profits from prime time alone, not including the additional revenues from reruns sold to cable and other TV stations. A single hit show can easily generate more than $100 million in annual profits. So, there are serious chips on the line.
But the top dog doesn't stay the top dog without protecting his territory. In this case, FOX is yapping at NBC's heels. Always jockeying for position, the networks fiercely compete, hoping to hit the jackpot with that special show that will drive the majority of viewers to their network. Consequently, NBC has brought out the biggest gun and brightest talent they have Jeff Zucker. Many say he's brilliant. Others say he's a self-confident and decisive leader. Whatever he is, he's broken the mold.
Could anyone have predicted that Jeff Zucker would turn out to be the mega entertainment mogul he is today? The answer is unlikely. Born in Homestead, Florida in 1965, the family moved to Miami when Jeff was just a child. Raised in an upper-middle class family, he shared the spotlight with younger sister, Pam. Father, Matthew, was a busy cardiologist, while mother, Arline, was an outspoken school teacher who coached the debate team. As captain of the tennis team, he also served as editor of the school paper, and as president of his senior class. Home became an ever-present opportunity for the children to understand and experience, first hand, the importance of education, while mom Arlene made sure the children always came out at the top of their class.
Although Jeff didn't speak until he was three, he would spend countless hours putting together 500-piece puzzles. By age five, he had discovered tennis, and was so competitive that he would spend every waking hour practicing. He seemed the natural born leader president of every class at North Miami Senior High School, captain of the tennis team, editor of the school paper, and even a teenage freelance reporter for The Miami Herald so busy that he started his homework at midnight and only rested on Sundays. Not surprising, he went on to Harvard, serving as president of The Harvard Crimson during his senior year, graduating in 1986 with a degree in American History. Straight out of college, he had the good fortune of landing a position as a researcher for NBC Sports. A job at the top of any college graduate's wish list, he traveled the world, compiling and writing background information used by NBC Sports commentators and producers, prior to and during the network's coverage of major sporting events.
His next step was as executive producer of the NBC newsmagazine, Now with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric, and the NBC News with Tom Brokaw. Then, at age 26, the road to the top narrowed when Jeff became the youngest executive producer in the history of the Today show, winning the full support of Katie Couric, Matt Lauer and Bryant Gumbel. Under his leadership, Today became the nation's most-watched morning news program, with viewership during the 2001 season reaching the highest point in the show's history, helping to make Katie Couric a household word.
Jeff was widely credited for giving Today a harder news edge format, airing exclusive interviews and spotting trends, thereby appealing to the ever-changing morning news audience. He drew tens of thousands of new viewers with the popular, "Where in the World is Matt Lauer?" segment, and Today's summer concert series at Rockefeller center. He ordered spots dealing with who'd been kicked off the reality shows the previous night, recognizing that it was the number one water cooler conversation of the following day. Jeff clearly had his finger on the viewer's pulse, and could anticipate great stories before they happened.
When the network needed a new superstar, Jeff was the natural choice. He joined NBC's Olympic unit in 1986, straight out of Harvard; then at 26, he became the youngest producer in Today show history. By 35, he had proven that he was ready to be named President of NBC Entertainment in December 2000, overseeing the network's entire entertainment schedule.
During his first 18 months, he threw out the rule book on network television with such "Must See TV" hits as Fear Factor and Scrubs, super-sizing Friends to forty minutes, and filling the remaining hour with segments of Saturday Night Live. He made it clear that his goal was to bring out new shows, adventurous shows, the kind that hadn't been seen on any network before and it worked. Under his guidance NBC has had unprecedented victories in daytime, primetime and latenight, managing to satisfy the under-35 audience that grew up with MTV and ESPN, and the baby-boomers whose all-time favorites include Moonlighting and Cheers. By May 2002, his role expanded to include both NBC Studios and NBC Enterprises. In addition, he oversees Telemundo and NBC's recent acquisition of the upscale Bravo, arts and entertainment cable channel.
Still trying to find that blockbuster show to replace Friends, the Zucker team has listened to over 500 pitches for new shows and commissioned over 100 scripts, everything from shows about an American Indian family that moves to Brentwood (shades of the Beverly Hillbillies, maybe) to a Buddhist monk who heals people in strange mystical ways. And, at NBC's annual "Upfront" presentation, where advertisers get to glimpse the new season's line-up, Jeff received $3 billion in advertising commitments, almost a billion more than any other network.
So, who is the real Jeff Zucker? Well, this oddly-charming, network executive divides his time between his Coldwater Canyon residence in California, and his New York City apartment overlooking Central Park on the upper West Side. He enjoys a beach house in the Hamptons, and two exact-same, top-of-the-line BMW's one on each coast. He loves golf, tennis and spending quality time with his family.
Insiders reveal that he never yells, is not the kind of guy that needs his ass kissed, and makes up cute little nicknames for everyone. He doesn't brood. He doesn't dwell. Having had two brushes with colon cancer, his outlook on life has become much more relaxed. At the end of the day, this five-time Emmy Award winner tries not to take anything for granted. He feels lucky to be alive, lucky to have a great job, and most of all, lucky to have his wife and kids. Anything else that happens is just not the end of the world.
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