The Jeff Zucker Era at NBC: Super-sizing, 'Fear Factor' and 'The Office'

jeff-zucker-nbc-320.jpgJeff Zucker's announcement that he's leaving NBC Universal when the company's merger with Comcast is finished brought some pangs of nostalgia. Because we won't have Zucker to kick around anymore.

Zucker was the president of NBC Entertainment from 2001-04 -- he had been the executive producer of "Today" prior to that -- then moved up the executive ladder from there before becoming CEO of NBC Universal in late 2007. Since then, he hasn't had as much of a hand in the day-to-day running of NBC, so most of his programming legacy comes from before then. But he left a lot of things to remember him by -- here are a few mementos from the Zucker Era.

"Fear Factor." In 2001, reality was still a relatively new concept for the broadcast networks. "Survivor" was only a year old, "American Idol" and "The Bachelor" didn't yet exist. NBC's first big entry into the genre was "Fear Factor," which every week had six people go through a series of willies-inducing stunts that almost always included ingesting offal or squirmy creatures or squirmy offal. (Zucker himself downed a fake eyeball at a TCA session in 2003.) It was a top-25 show for its first three seasons but didn't do much for NBC's "the quality shows" image.

Super-sizing. Early in Zucker's time as NBC Entertainment president, he tried out a sweeps stunt that stretched NBC's Thursday comedies ( "Friends," "Will & Grace" and a rotating cast of others) beyond their normal half-hour running time. The thinking was that it would keep people from switching over to "Survivor" or "CSI" at the half-hour mark while simultaneously giving advertisers a few more commercial spots. The audience got a minute or two more of story out of the deal, which became a semi-regular sweeps occurrence.

"The Office." The adaptation of the British show was Kevin Reilly's baby -- he replaced Zucker as NBC Entertainment president in 2004 -- but if we're going to make fun of Zucker for stuff like super-sizing, we should at least acknowledge that he let Reilly and exec producer Greg Daniels keep going after a brief and low-rated first season. The Emmy winner is now one of NBC's longest-running current shows.

Ben Silverman. After Reilly unexpectedly got the boot in May 2007, Zucker brought in Silverman, a former agent and executive producer of "The Office" and "Ugly Betty," to run NBC. While Silverman's brief tenure made for good copy -- what with the rumors of his party-boy lifestyle, the media feuds with Reilly and ABC boss Steve McPherson, the disparaging remarks about striking writers -- the programming most decidedly did not.

The "Tonight Show" succession plan. You may have read a couple things about this last season. Back in 2004, Zucker engineered a deal whereby Jay Leno would hand over "The Tonight Show" to Conan O'Brien in five years' time. Five years came and went, Leno was still the ratings leader, NBC got panicky and tried to have things both ways while saving some money on development, and you know the rest. Conan's TBS show debuts in November.

"Emeril," "Coupling" et al. Zucker took some heat in 2003 for saying "Some of our programs just sucked" when asked about various programming failures. He was mostly talking about the American remake of "Coupling" (and its creators weren't too happy with him either), but we also remember "Emeril," "In-Laws," "Inside Schwartz" and "Good Morning, Miami." We wish we didn't, but we do.

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Photo credit: NBC Universal

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