How’s this for a ringing endorsement of about-to-be-crowned Jeff Zucker by his GE predecessor. I’m told that, just a few weeks ago, Bob Wright confided to another NYC power-player, “I’m in a very funny position with Zucker. Either I promote him or fire him.” First of all, Jeff Zucker’s ascension at NBC Universal — yes, he now oversees the movie studio, too — was supposed to happen last week. Too bad his GE bosses didn’t come to their senses in the meantime. Not even the embarrassment of ex-GE Chairman (and legend) Jack Welch dissing Zucker could sway them. In case you hadn’t heard, Welch was asked by New York magazine recently, “If NBC isn’t doing so well, why is Jeff Zucker still in his job?” Replied Welch: “Cause I’m retired” — followed by a pregnant pause. (But in a letter to the mag published Monday, Welch backtracks.) The implication being, of course, that were he still in charge, Welch would have axed the wonderkind. But back to Wright. Throughout 2005, Wright had been openly dissing Zucker. “He was very protective of Kevin Reilly and not so complimentary of Jeff,” a source told me at the time. Indeed, Zucker was actively trying to undermine his NBC Entertainment prez, and Hollywood was certain that Reilly was a goner. But Wright saved Reilly, which was the right move. Things “came to a head” about Zucker’s future at the start of December 2005, I was told. That’s because Ge Chairman/CEO Jeff Immelt felt pressured by Wall Street to designate a successor to Wright, 63. (Although GE has no set retirement policy, few execs stay there beyond 65. Remember, Wright is not just chief executive of NBC Uni but also vice chairman of GE putting him No. 2 to Immelt. But Zucker’s not getting that GE gig.) So Immelt wanted to annoint as infotainment czar then 40-year-old Zucker — a move that Wright vehemently opposed. I was told Wright argued that Zucker was “the wrong guy” to lead NBC Uni because of his arrogance, and that, after NBC’s fall to fourth among TV networks under Jeff’s watch, it would send the wrong message that failure is tolerated at GE. (Because integral to the GE culture, from its famous leadership center Crotonville on up, is the importance placed on “accountability”, meaning that a GE executive who errs or underperforms can be let go immediately.) Wright also had been telling Immelt there had to be someone better out there to lead NBC Uni than Zucker. Indeed, a quiet search among top media moguls was conducted. But Immelt acted precipitously anyway — which is why, seemingly inexplicably that month, then NBC prez Zucker received a promotion, albeit to a seemingly meaningless title as chief executive of the NBC Universal Television Group. Wags on both coasts went, “Huh?”. Zucker was moved to the 52nd floor of the NBC headquarters at 30 Rock, which was Wright’s location. Once that was done, Wright stopped revealing his true feelings about Zucker so openly. This week, when NBC does its dog-and-pony show in NYC, everyone will act all cozy. But Immelt’s decision has come back to haunt Wright. He won’t get even a couple of years more in the gig. As for Reilly, I heard his job was safe under Zucker thanks to big hit Heroes. And Monday Reilly was newly re-upped.) Finally, I can’t help but comment on today’s LA Times’ Business section puff piece about Zucker which didn’t even include the Welch quote above. Ridiculous. Explain to me, please, how Teflon Jeff, who for years has shrugged off responsibility for everything bad about NBC, gets away now with credit for anything good? Then again, at the worst of NBC’s fall, I was told this about Zucker’s ability to massage his bosses: “He is one of the most incredible people in the room about spinning a tale in the way he can talk about a negative situation and make it into a positive situation.” He’ll need to do that even more now.
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