Life imitates TV (cont.)

By Patricia Sellers, Fortune editor-at-large

"His behavior was embarrassing!" says Zucker's mom, Arlene. She's referring to Jeff, who by age 10 was a tiny terror on the tennis courts of Miami. When Jeff lost or played badly, he often threw fits - or his racket. "My husband and I pulled him out of tournaments," she says. Jeff got his temper under control by high school, where he was No. 1 on the tennis team, editor of the newspaper, and president of his sophomore, junior, and senior classes. His campaign slogan: The Little Man With Big Ideas.

At Harvard, Zucker was the editor of the Crimson, the daily newspaper, while Conan O'Brien ran the Lampoon, the humor magazine. The staffs of the two publications often pulled pranks on each other, and in that vein, O'Brien and his pals broke into the Crimson offices early one morning to steal that day's run of papers.

"You were supposed to respond by throwing paint on our building or stealing our flagpole," O'Brien recalls. "Jeff went nuclear right away. He called the police. Not the campus police, which were the kind and gentle police. He called the Cambridge police." Hours later O'Brien found himself in the hands of a Cambridge cop, who had him spread-eagled, cuffed, and listening to his Miranda rights. "I remember thinking that Jeff is a different species than I am," says O'Brien. "And that species could easily rip my throat open."

Did Zucker ever apologize? "Why would I?" he says, grinning. "He's the guy who started it."

In 1986, after his top choice, Harvard Law, rejected him, Zucker landed a research gig for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. His spark and writing talent impressed Jane Pauley, then Today's co-anchor, and she helped him get a job as a field producer on the morning show. Recalls Michael Gartner, then president of NBC News: "He changed the entire atmosphere almost instantly. Today wasn't doing well. Everyone was sour and dour. Jeff had this enthusiasm and ability to make snap decisions that made people feel, 'We can do this. We can be the best.'"

When Gartner promoted the 26-year-old Zucker to executive producer in 1992, "Doogie Howser," as folks at NBC called him, made changes immediately. He eliminated commercials in Today's first 22 minutes, increased hard-news coverage, and had the presidential candidates on-air for hourlong interviews. He also launched viewer call-ins, staged summer concerts in Rockefeller Plaza, and promoted Katie Couric, Today's new co-anchor, as TV's freshest star. If the show was scooped or one-upped in the press, his temper flared. Recalls Comstock, then NBC News' PR boss: "Jeff would say, 'We're not fighting back enough. We're not aggressive enough!'"

Within months Today hit No. 1. Nothing, it seemed, could stop Doogie. Matt Lauer, who credits Zucker with plucking him from obscurity and casting him on Today, recalls one October day in 1996, three months before he was to replace Bryant Gumbel as co-anchor. "There was a knock on my door. Jeff came in and said, 'I have to tell you something important. Yesterday I was diagnosed with colon cancer. I need to have surgery in the next week. But I'm going to be here for your transition.' The kid was 31."

Zucker scheduled chemotherapy sessions at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Friday afternoons and slept all weekend, so he was fit for action by Monday morning. "I didn't want anyone to think that I couldn't do the job," he says. The cancer reappeared two years later. Caryn was four months pregnant with their second child. "There was no plan B. No 'What if I don't get better?'" she says. "It was 'What do we do next?'"

To keep the cancer from recurring, his doctors removed 90% of his colon. "I would never say that [beating cancer] made me feel invincible," says Zucker. "But it's prepared me for almost anything."

Except, perhaps, Hollywood. In 2000, in his last months as CEO, Jack Welch decided to stretch Zucker and send him to Burbank as president of NBC Entertainment. Newsman Tom Brokaw remembers telling Zucker, "You think you know Hollywood? Wait till you get there." NBC Sports boss Dick Ebersol says he told Zucker he'd "hate it - developing scripts, 95% of which end up in the garbage. You deal with so much failure."

Suddenly Zucker was in foreign territory, with plenty to lose. Caryn and the kids stayed in New York, so he was commuting weekly. And while NBC was still No. 1, it was relying on expensive, soon-to-expire shows. His first week, Zucker suggested to NBC's programmers that they "supersize" Friends - add ten minutes to the end of the show to hold viewers. His own people thought he was crazy.

"This is where they thought NBC had made a huge mistake to send this nut-job out west," he says. The gimmick worked. That - and paying dearly to extend Friends two years - helped Zucker squeeze out three of NBC's most profitable years.

But the out-of-towner found the Hollywood crowd harder to manage than the Today studio. Zucker took flak for criticizing the industry's free-spending ways ("Just nuts," he told the New York Times) and airing cheap reality shows. (Remember Fear Factor and The Weakest Link?) These programs propped NBC, as did The Apprentice, which Zucker bought on the spot when producer Mark Burnett pitched it in 2003.

But his hits were few. Among his many failed sitcoms: Emeril, Inside Schwartz, Coupling, Whoopi, and Joey. Recalls DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who produced two NBC flops, Father of the Pride and The Contender: "Jeff said to me, 'Look, it happens. Whatever the hurt is for me, it's greater for you guys.'"

Zucker's most voluble critic was Les Moonves. The CBS boss was determined to end NBC's 20-year reign on Thursday, which he ultimately did with Survivor and CSI. He mocked Zucker mercilessly. Once he pummeled a punching-bag likeness of Zucker on stage. He told an audience that Dr. Phil put him in a 12-step program to "cut down on bashing" NBC and Zucker. "It was sport," says Zucker, who, before an audience of TV critics, gulped a gummy CBS eyeball as if he were eating Les for lunch. Immelt, while amused, warned Zucker to back off. "I told him, 'You work for me. That's the good and bad of working for GE. I'm the only one you need to please.'"

Indeed, unlike 30 Rock's Jack Donaghy, Zucker has a real boss - and shareholders - to answer to. NBCU could be worth some $40 billion, according to Wall Street estimates, and some investors think Immelt should sell the unit. While insisting he likes the media operation, he says, "We try not to fall in love with any business. Everybody has to perform." So is Zucker performing? "What would have really pissed me off is if Jeff had said, 'We're just one hit away.' He never said that. He said, 'We've got to double the scripts, get our production studio ramped up.' He took all the right steps."

Managing up, say his colleagues, is one of Zucker's talents, as is aligning his team. "We're in this together," he tells people. As Immelt says, "They find that incredibly appealing." This supportive approach is welcome at Universal as it emerges from a tumultuous 18 months, which saw a scrapped deal to buy DreamWorks' live-action studio, the departure of Universal Pictures chairman Stacey Snider, and, say insiders, continual second-guessing by GE.

The movies (which included The Break-Up and Miami Vice) "basically sucked" last year, as Ron Meyer, Universal's chief, stood up and said at Zucker's town hall. Meyer, for one, is glad to have a new boss who's not a typical GE exec. "I feel I can talk to him about somebody being an asshole," he says. "Jeff and I have real conversations."

Perhaps Zucker's biggest management test is with Kevin Reilly, whom he hired from the FX cable network to replace him as entertainment boss three years ago. Though Reilly developed Heroes, he has delivered a series of high-priced duds like The Black Donnellys, Kidnapped, and the all-star Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Asked about Reilly's budget overruns (notorious in the industry), Zucker turns squeamish and says he has given Reilly leeway "because we need to fix this." At NBC's "upfront" presentation to advertisers on May 14, Zucker says he expects NBC to unveil five new programs - three dramas, one comedy, and one reality show - for its fall schedule. Zucker and Reilly are considering stretching The Office to an hour and canceling the original Law & Order.

One show that's definitely returning: 30 Rock. Though it ranks a dismal 138th among adults 18 to 49, Zucker and Reilly decided in early April to renew the sitcom for a second season. After all, the critics like it. It landed on year-end ten-best lists. It's smart! It's feisty! It's a fighter! True, it hasn't delivered yet. But can't everybody see it has potential?  Top of page