Within the next hour, Jeff Zucker will be sitting down with Los Angeles-based showbiz journalists for one of his annual off-the-record sessions. But the NBCU chief plans on demonstrating he’s a new and supposedly improved Zucker. A nicer Zucker. And not the thin-skinned humorless bully of a boss which the journalism and showbiz communities have come to know and dislike and ridicule. Indeed, Jeff has been making a point of showing off his new persona to Hollywood within the past month. “He’s being so nice to everyone, so friendly, a more lovable guy,” one top TV agent describing Zucker at Ron Meyer’s Easter party tells me. “It’s because he knows he’s out.”
Yes, that’s the concensus — people think Zucker’s charm offensive is really a defensive maneuver. Privately, Zucker insists that he’ll hang onto his job after Comcast takes over NBCU. (He’s even making bets that he’ll still be NBCU’s media mogul two months after.) One major Industry player explained the transformation to me this way: “Jeff is one of those bullies who loves to beat up anyone he can. But in the past weeks, he’s a sissy. He’s changed out of fear. He’s saying yes to everything, and no to nothing. It feels strange the way he needs to become so helpful. Everything was always such a fucking fight. He’s like an old dog that cowers away from you. He’s a different person.” And it’s all very deliberate. When NBC’s scripted programmer Angela Bromstad recently granted an exclusive on-the-record interview to one of the trades, journalists complained to NBC suits that it wasn’t a very smart move to alienate reporters before the upfronts. “I understand but part of large plan,” one NBC exec emailed back.
That “large plan” is to demonstrate a fresh openness and honesty which includes having Teflon Jeff take full and sole responsibility for NBC’s cellar state. Because his now legendary mistakes have made “Zucked” and “Zuckered” part of the Hollywood lexicon, he will tell journalists today he was wrong not to have fired Ben Silverman a year earlier (though the boss still defends hiring that putz in the first place). And he was wrong to believe the broadcast network could “reinvent” pilot season by getting away with spending little on new show development last year (though he defends spending heavily on this year’s pilot season). And he was wrong to install Conan as Jay’s successor in late night and then try out Leno in primetime (though he defends replacing O’Brien as host of The Tonight Show). Et cetera.
But he’ll also deny any personal or professional feuding with Universal Studios president/COO Ron Meyer, or publicly and privately punishing a defiant Conan with undeserved brutality, or trial ballooning that he may run for public office as a way to cover his ass should Comcast can him. Come to think of it, Zucker’s new charm offensive is exactly what a politician would do in the same situation.
Run, Jeff, run.