Monday, September 27, 2010

762 Beancounter Bob and L'Enfant Terrible

762 Beancounter Bob and L'Enfant Terrible

Bob Wright was working in the fields of General Electric's Financial Services division. This was about the time that Jack Welch was turning GE from a stodgy industrial conglomerate into a Wall Street darling and bought RCA and with it, NBC. Wright was no broadcaster, though once he headed Cox Cable. So Jack probably thought "Ahah! Here's a guy who knows television," and named Wright president of the new acquisition. Wright did not know television. And he made some totally dunderheaded decisions that you, too, might make if you were a lawyer in a big financial services division. But to his credit, he learned the business. And he learned damned fast and built a monolith of a network and a ratings leader out of then-ailing NBC.

Twenty one years later, he got kicked upstairs. They named him "Vice Chairman" of GE. What's that? No one is sure. Welch was long gone, his replacement at the top, Jeff Immelt is a walking, talking, stock-sinking character out of "The Peter Principle," and so is Wright's replacement as CEO of NBC, Jeff Zucker (Rhymes with looker, not that other word.)

Zucker, named executive producer of the Today Show at the age of 26 rode that success right up to what Laurence Peter called his "level of incompetence." And now at the ripe old age of 45 is basically on the street. Probably not necessary to worry about the guy. Those GE settlements can be pretty decent. But with new owners coming, it was time for a change.

Jeff is Harvard educated, a native of south Florida and could easily have been cast in the role of "The Terrible Tempered Mr. Bang" of Toonerville Trolley fame. He also is the smartest guy in the room. And with the possible exceptions of Fred Friendly and Max Liebman may have been the best TV executive producer of all time. He knew instinctively what would work and what wouldn't and had the grit to take chances. And while he sometimes acted like a maniac, boy, did we give good television on his watch.

Then came the promotions, first to Hollywood and then back to New York as the Grand Macher of the network. He had his share of harebrained schemes ... shows that exceeded the long established standard time constraints, making Conan O'Brien star of "The Tonight Show," and putting Leno on at 10 PM. But by the time Jeff got to the top, NBC's ratings steamroller, lasting longer than the law of averages would have predicted, was heading downhill. The hits were wearing out or were gone. Seinfeld, Friends, Cheers, etc. were long over. The replacements were cheap and awful: Fear Factor, the Apprentice, and other so-called reality shows.

But at the same time, the stable of NBC cable networks started to flourish with original programming like "Monk," "Psych" and "Burn Notice," and even one of the Law & Order spin offs as a first run on USA. SyFy became a force in TV and so did Bravo. CNBC is considered the reliable source for financial news. MSNBC has carved out a middle-left leaning predominance. All this on the watch of the Terrible Tempered Mr. Bang.

Many of those of us who worked for him or beside him, used to be grateful for when he stayed downstairs in the Studio 1A control room while we were on the floor above. We were happy to have an equally smart, influential, fearless and authoritative Morning News Director, Jim Dick, to run interference between Jeff and the news staff. But what Zucker did with morning television was nothing short of brilliant.

Say what you will about JZ, point out all the flaws you want. But the guy did plenty to keep the company profitable and firmly entrenched in the 21st Century. He has nothing to be ashamed of for 15 of the 24 years he spent with the company. Except the Leno fiasco and not renewing the original Law & Order.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own but you're welcome to them.®
©WJR 2010

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