Jeff Zucker, a lifelong employee of NBC Universal, said Friday that he would step down as chief executive after being told there won't be a place for him once Philadelphia cable giant Comcast Corp. takes over the company at the end of the year.
Two weeks ago, Comcast Chief Operating Officer Steve Burke told Zucker that he wanted him to "move on" as soon as Comcast takes control of the media conglomerate.
Federal regulators are expected later this year or early next to approve the $30-billion merger between Comcast's entertainment properties and General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal, which will create an entertainment juggernaut that includes the NBC broadcast network, cable channels including USA, Bravo, MSNBC, CNBC and E!, the Universal movie studio and theme parks.
"It had become increasingly clear to me over the last few months that this was where we were headed," Zucker said in an interview. "They spent billions and billions of dollars to buy the company and they want to run it their way with their own people."
Burke, the No. 2 executive at Comcast, will be the one in charge. In recent months, Burke has been planning an overhaul of NBC Universal's management so his new team will be ready on Day 1.
A top priority is to pick a new program chief for NBC's troubled broadcast network. Burke has had discussions with Bob Greenblatt, former Showtime entertainment president, according to people familiar with the talks. Greenblatt, a former Fox executive, is credited with making Showtime a destination with provocative, original shows.
Burke plans to divide the company into four distinct units: broadcast television, cable television, sports and movies and theme parks.
He has not discussed with senior NBC Universal executives whether they will be part of the mix, said people familiar with the situation.
Ron Meyer, the longtime head of Universal Studios, and Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports, are expected to remain in their positions, according to several people.
Burke and Greenblatt declined to comment.
"This was not unexpected," said former News Corp. President Peter Chernin, who last year advised Comcast when it was preparing its bid for NBC Universal. "Comcast bought the company and Steve wants to run it and he has every right to do that."
Zucker will stay on for at least three to four months, until Comcast assumes control. Although most people had expected him to leave NBC Universal at the completion of the merger, the timing of his announcement took even some of his longtime lieutenants by surprise.
After he discussed his future with Burke on Sept. 10, Zucker began finalizing his exit deal with his bosses at GE. Those conversations concluded Thursday.
"In this day and age, you might as well announce it," Zucker said. "Things like that don't stay quiet."
In recent weeks, there had been some behind-the-scenes tension between the two companies because earlier in the year Burke had told people that he intended to draft a new management structure at least three months before the merger closed, or sometime in September.
That led to considerable speculation, and blog posts, about which executives would be in or out.
On Sept. 3, just as executives were leaving for Labor Day weekend, GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt sent a memo to NBC Universal's top management saying there would not be an announcement of organizational structure in September.
The speculation over who might survive had become distracting to top NBC Universal executives. Several insiders interpreted Immelt's memo as a warning to Comcast executives to back off until they officially took control of the company.
Comcast will own 51% of the new venture; GE will retain 49%.
Burke had adjusted his plans for announcing a structure because the deal is being scrutinized by the Justice Department as well as the Federal Communications Commission.
People close to Burke said he didn't plan to go public with a new management team until it was clear the merger would be approved by the government.
However, a week after Immelt's e-mail, Burke had the talk with Zucker.
Zucker, 45, who became CEO in 2007, has an annual salary of $6.3 million. He is expected to leave NBC Universal with more than $20 million, according to a contract he negotiated late last year. The deal called for a doubling of his base salary and several performance bonuses.
Zucker's career started off brilliantly. In 1992, at age 26, the Florida native was tapped as the youngest-ever executive producer of the "Today" show. He built it into NBC's most profitable asset and helped turn Katie Couric into a star.
In 2001, Zucker was put in charge of all of NBC programming operations in Burbank, but he struggled to come up with a supersized hit to replace "Friends."
Zucker returned to New York to a bigger job, running all of the company's television properties. In 2007, he took over the entire company. He aggressively tried to expand NBC's portfolio of cable channels, including buying Oxygen and the Weather Channel, and sought to expand internationally. He shoved the company into the Internet age, and was an early architect of the online video website Hulu.
But he had several misfires, most notably hiring independent producer Ben Silverman to develop programming for NBC — a two year disaster that caused NBC to tumble in the ratings. He also came up with the ill-fated decision to shift Jay Leno to prime time, a scheme that damaged NBC's ratings and those of local TV stations that depend on revenue from their late local newscasts.
The Leno move blew up after Zucker decided to shift him back to late night, which led to the messy departure of NBC's late-night host Conan O'Brien. The Leno-O'Brien fiasco leaked in January, the day Zucker was in Los Angeles introducing Burke and Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts to the troops.
In the interview, Zucker said that "intellectually I completely get what's going on" [but] "emotionally, it is a different story."
"I have spent my entire adult life here — 24 and a half years. You can't be somewhere for that long, know almost everybody who works in the company, know every nook and cranny, and not feel a deep emotional connection."
The fact that Burke didn't want Zucker to stick around "should not be an indictment of either man or a referendum on Jeff's management," Chernin said. "The referendum on Jeff was that he built the company that Comcast wanted to buy."