If there's a surprise in today's report that Jeff Zucker has already agreed to an exit package that will take him out of his job as chairman of NBC Universal, it's the timing. It's not so much that the deal has already been worked out before the entertainment conglomerate's sale to Comcast (CMCSA) has even received government approval. It's more that it didn't happen, say, five years ago -- after it had already become abundantly clear that Zucker was running NBC into the ground.
Five years ago, Zucker, then president of NBC Television, had already let Friends expire without lining up anything close to another hit of that magnitude with which to replace it -- a drought that has lasted right up to the present day. Five years ago, he had already brokered the deal that would force Jay Leno to give up The Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien in 2009 -- a deal that exploded spectacularly earlier this year, undoing years of succession planning and costing the network $40 million in severance.
Of course, in 2005, Zucker hadn't yet made his other signal blunder, the hiring of Ben Silverman as co-chairman of NBC Entertainment. That wouldn't come until 2007. It was a move whose main virtue was to give critics of NBC a focus, other than Zucker, for their mockery. Unfortunately for Zucker, Silverman lasted only two years in his human-shield role before his many detractors succeeded in driving him to move on.
Comcast will reportedly pay Zucker between $30 million and $40 million in walk-away money sometime after the acquisition is finalized, which will probably happen early in 2011. (Comcast hasn't commented on the report, although COO Steve Burke did say at the D8 Conference on Wednesday that Zucker will continue to run NBC Universal while reporting to him after the deal closes.) That's a nice little war chest should Zucker decide to forge ahead with vague ambitions of running for political office. It might seem like a disproportionately rich reward for someone whose only real accomplishment over the past decade has been to continue adding new lines to his resume while the roof was crashing down around him. Then again, had it not been for Zucker's misrule, GE (GE) might still look on NBC as a crown jewel, not an embarrassment, and Comcast would never have been able to get its hands on it.
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