Welcome Back Zucker
By Chez Pazienza: Here’s a little something just about everyone in the television business knows: Once you become a high-powered executive, it’s almost impossible to fuck yourself and your reputation so badly that you’ll never work again.
Let’s say you’re some poor mid-level schmuck, doing whatever it is you do right now for a living, and you almost single-handedly make, let’s say, some gargantuan mistake that turns your company into a worldwide laughingstock and threatens to crater an upcoming multi-million dollar merger that’s going to make it the most powerful organization of its kind in the world — there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be radioactive for about the next hundred or so years. Not in television, though — and not if you’re an executive.
Case in point: Jeff Zucker, the former boy wonder of NBC Universal whose breathtaking arrogance and bottomless reservoir of short-sighted quick fixes and dumb-ass gimmickry turned the once-mighty NBC into a perennial last-place loser and whose name became synonymous with epic failure. It was Zucker who was personally responsible for the now legendary clusterfuck that turned NBC’s prime time inside out, led to an affiliate rebellion and eventually culminated in the ugly public departure of Conan O’Brien, all in the name of keeping Jay Leno fat, happy and, most importantly, safely in place at the network. Zucker ultimately left NBC in disgrace, but the important thing to remember is that disgrace is a stench that washes off damn quickly in the amoral world of the television suit.
Zucker’s got name recognition. And he’s got a reputation for putting clever ways of bringing in revenue above actually putting decent programming on the air — and that’s really all anybody cares about anymore in TV. Which is why his name is apparently now being bandied about as a possible candidate for not one but two stratospheric television news positions. Turner President Phil Kent is reportedly considering Zucker as a replacement for CNN Worldwide CEO Jim Walton, whose contract is up in December; Walton’s renewal is on very shaky ground in the wake of an almost staggering drought of ratings, with CNN pulling in record low numbers for months now. Meanwhile, Tribune Co. might also be considering Zucker to help lead the company out of its own wasteland, one brought on by a 2008 Chapter 11 filing that it’s now trying to emerge from.
Actually, the Tribune job would at least make a minor amount of sense given that Zucker’s forte is conjuring short-lived financial success out of thin air through the implementation of all kinds of silly schemes, cheap on-air trickery and relentless cross-pollination. But when it comes to CNN, here’s the thing: The network is already making money. In fact — it’s still turning an impressive profit even as its ratings tank. CNN could easily not worry one bit about how many people are watching it because it’s feeding off plenty of healthy revenue streams besides the traditional ones cultivated by good ratings. Obviously, though, CNN has a reputation to uphold and being the number three cable news network doesn’t exactly jibe with how it’s been perceived in the past and how it would like to be perceived now and going forward — but bringing somebody like Zucker on board to try to bring in those ratings seems more than a little misguided.
Either way, it looks like we haven’t seen the last of Jeff Zucker. You could’ve predicted from the beginning that there would always be somebody willing to put his special brand of spoiled milk back in the refrigerator in the hope that it’d taste better later. That’s just how things work in corporate television.