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Lunchtime Briefing: Q & A with NBC Chief Jeff Zucker

Frank Ahrens

Last week, NBC Universal announced some sweeping staff and budget cuts, saying it needed to reduce costs as it headed into the digital age.

This morning, I talked to NBCU topper Jeff Zucker, who's headed the network's prime-time schedule since 2000 and has since brought news, sports and cable under his wings. Each network head has their own rap in the industry: CBS honcho Les Moonves is known for being accessible to the media--or eager to see his name in print, depending on how you see him; ABC's Anne Sweeney is restrained and measured, a bit of a cipher; Zucker is by turns curt and voluble.

Jeff Zucker
NBC's Jeff Zucker (Photo by Fred Prouser, Reuters)

I had a 20-minute chat with Zucker, whom I've known for awhile, and I found him pretty forthright about his network--which is in third place in the ratings--and pragmatic about the high cost of the digital future.

Here are the highlights of our talk:

Q: Last week, you were characterized as saying that scripted programming -- comedies and dramas -- in the 8 p.m. time slot are dead, owing to high costs, and the 8 p.m. hour will be filled by cheaper shows, such as reality programs and game shows. How else will primetime change?

A: I don't think I ever said scripted programming is dead. That's a complete exaggeration. What we said was, it's clear that the cost of programming continues to escalate so we are all going to have to continue to get a grip on our costs and one of the ways you do that is a portfolio of more-expensive and less-expensive shows. You cannot discount the fact that programming costs (cast salaries, filming costs and so forth) have continued to escalate. There comes a point where you cannot fill your schedule with 22 hours (the amount of primetime each week) with very expensive, scripted programming.

Q: How will the way viewers watch TV and how and when they watch TV change in the digital age?

A: We are already seeing that with our new hit program, "Heroes." It airs Mondays at 9 p.m. and airs by 2 a.m. (the following morning) on with advertisements. By noon the [same] day, it is available on iTunes without ads for 99 cents, and is available on [the] Sci-Fi (channel, also owned by NBCU) Friday night at 7 and Monday at 7. Four months ago, that would have been unthinkable.

Q: How much of the cuts announced last week were dictated by the fact the NBC is in third place in the network ratings? If you were still in first, would it have only staved off for a few years the inevitable?

A: Sometimes when you're down a little, you see things more clearly. The pressure on us from the last two years makes us see the world more clearly. The industry is undergoing tremendous change...all we're trying to do is get in front of it.

Q: One of your big hits has been "ER." But it's produced by Warner Bros., not NBC. NBC's "My Name Is Earl" is produced by 20th Century Fox. Each of those studios -- not NBC -- owns the digital rights to those shows, which dictate how and when they are available for sale on DVD and digital download. Explain for readers why they sometimes can't get the shows the want as quickly as they want because of digital rights issues and what you're doing to change that.

A: Digital rights is a big issue. If you do not own all the rights, you cannot exploit [programming] on all the platforms currently available. We have made deals with some of the studios that are not aligned with us, like Warner Bros., and will continue to experiment with others. It does point out why it is advantageous to own as much programming as possible, but that's not entirely positive: You don't want to cut yourself off from the best programming possible.

Q: The digital revenue stream is growing, but it's not enough currently to support the cost of, say, creating an expensive drama like a "CSI:," which can cost more than $2 million per episode, and putting it only on the Internet and mobile devices. Where do you see online revenue going for networks?

A: Clearly, the assumption is that more and more revenue will continue to [come from digital outlets] but I don't know it will ever be possible for any of those outlets to afford a $2 million drama.

Q: I bought an HDTV last year and I suddenly became a fan of some shows just because they're in high-def. The dirty secret about HD televisions is that shows that are NOT filmed and broadcast in HD actually look WORSE on a high-def TV than on a regular TV because the HD resolution is so good. The promise of HD is that more and more shows will be produced in HD. But with the cuts NBCU has made, and the move toward more non-scripted shows, does that mean HD-set owners will not see the increase in HD shows that we've been led to believe is coming?

A: That's a fair question. It's hard to say if viewers will be less interested in unscripted programming that's not in HD when the rest of the programming is in HD. I think it's a fair question, but I'm not overly concerned about it at this point.

By Frank Ahrens  |  October 26, 2006; 10:09 AM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
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Interesting interview, thanks. The last answer was disappointing. The fact that Zucker is "not overly concerned about" HD programming indicates that he doesn't get it when it comes to understanding changing viewer habits. I for one have stopped watching some programs just because they are not in HD. The only non-HD programming I see these days are news programs where quality of content still significantly trumps quality of presentation.

Posted by: Srikanth | October 26, 2006 3:07 PM

Thanks for the interview. I agree with the previous commenter. As a 30 something who grew up with The Cosby Show, I agree that Zucker doesn't understand changing viewer habits which is why we started Today's 30 somethings are the network's bread and butter and NBC is forgetting about us, by not giving us high quality HD programming and programming we want to watch.

Posted by: Courtney | October 26, 2006 4:14 PM

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