As Leno's fortunes fade at NBC, Zucker's continue to climb

Is a deal with Satan the kind of thing you're required to disclose in a proxy statement? If so, I'll be very curious to see the one filed after Comcast (CMCSA) completes its takeover of NBC Universal (GE).

It's hard to imagine what else could account for the continuing employment of Jeff Zucker as the head of one of the world's premier media conglomerates -- even as it becomes increasingly clear how unfit he is for the job. Now it looks like not even the sale of his company will put an end to Zucker's reign of error: Reuters reports that Comcast has agreed to keep him on as the CEO of the joint venture created by the acquisition, if and when it comes to fruition. This despite the availability of former News Corp. (NWS) president Peter Chernin, a media executive with a substantially better track record than Zucker's. Chernin is advising Comcast in the deal.
In a nice bit of irony-flavored synchronicity, the news about Zucker's job security comes amid fresh reports of what a dismal failure his boldest initiative is shaping up to be. It was Zucker who dreamed up a 10 p.m. talk show as a way to keep Jay Leno at NBC, while reducing the network's prime-time programming costs.

The success of this strategy rested on several premises, one or more of which appear to have been faulty. Zucker believed that viewers who deserted NBC in the immediate aftermath of the format change would come surging back once the 10 p.m. dramas on ABC and CBS go to reruns. But, as I surmised would happen, the ratings suggest that those viewers are abandoning broadcast television altogether for cable and the Web, making it unlikely they'll notice or care when Private Practice is a repeat.

It's also not clear that The Jay Leno Show can sustain even the very humble ratings level it needs to meet in order to generate profits for the network. Recently, the show has on two occasions mustered only a 1.2 rating among adults 18 to 49, far below the 1.5 rating it needs to achieve. And it's an open question whether Jay Leno is responsible for the faltering ratings of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon: Is it because of smaller lead-in audiences or are viewers fatigued of talk-show humor by the time 11:30 rolls around?

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