Saturday, February 02, 2008


***Due to tech glitches and time constraints, I couldn't post directly from NATPE, but I made notes and will be putting up a few thoughts over the weekend as I transcribe. The posts may not be all that literate and reasoned because they're coming on the fly, but then, when has that ever been a problem around here?***

A lot of people in television do not like Jeff Zucker. He's a pushy outsider to some, a pretender who has failed upward to others and pretty much evil incarnate to members of the WGA -- like me. He's also a bit of an "Ugly Duckling" in the eternal high school culture that is LA. But he's also smart and tough as nails and as President and CEO of NBC Universal, somebody no one in the business can ignore.

A couple of weeks ago, Zucker earned the derision of most Hollywood insiders for suggesting that NBC might stop making pilots. And that was the baggage he toted onto the stage at NATPE last Tuesday in making the convention's keynote address. Long the butt of jokes by CBS President Les Moonves, David Letterman and even the cast of his own "Saturday Night Live" franchise; Zucker was expected to back-pedal. After all the WGA and AMPTP were back at the table and his overall primetime ratings without scripted content had dropped 7% in the three months since the strike began.

But Zucker used the NATPE podium to launch his own campaign of shock and awe against all that he sees wrong about the way Hollywood and especially prime time television does business.

Basically, Jeff announced that television as we've known it is over. He not only reiterated that NBC will stop making pilots in the traditional sense, but he cancelled all the networks long-term producer deals, the advertising Upfronts and the whole concept of what we've come to know as the TV season.

I'm somewhat surprised his speech isn't all over Youtube, because I counted no less than 20 people around me recording it on personal devices, some of them in handheld Hi-Def. I guess NBC owns the copyright on their CEO's output as well as everything they broadcast, so you may have to search to get the full story.

But it's "citizen journalists" like those people with the palm sized camcorders who are changing the entertainment world and Zucker made it quite clear he was ready to confront that future.

In Jeff's brave new world, spending $500 Million (as the US Nets did this year) to shoot pilots that resulted in 8 new shows, none of which may survive the season, makes no sense on any economic or creative level. The new NBC will order direct to series based not on established relationships, suppliers with a track record or a showrunner's past artistic success, but on current need and -- "Gut".

Likely shot in initial groupings of six episodes, that may cost in total what the pilot alone would have run in the past, these series will not roll out following a flashy Upfront presentation to advertisers in June and a fall marketing campaign. Instead, they will debut "When they are ready", be that September, November or May.

To Zucker, the future is not about "perpetuating inefficiency" but coming to grips with the reality that NBC's competition is not just other networks and cable but, "Guys working out of their garage".

Sitting amid an audience of a couple thousand Hollywood players, powerful agents and advertising execs come to spend three days bartering the next year of television content, Zucker was suggesting the equivalent of a show business 9/11. There was stunned shock. No longer could agencies push up talent costs in the frenzy that is pilot season. No longer could marketers depend on a fat summer of competing promotional campaigns. Development departments saw their gatekeeper status evaporate. The guys in charge would make the decisions based on what they needed, when they needed it. The rest of the circus could leave town.

Here's a segment of the Q&A that followed Zucker's opening remarks.

Will other nets follow Zucker's lead or will the need to prop up a system that has made too many Hollywood insiders wealthy conspire against him? Too soon to tell. But I have to admit, I went into that symposium hall with a poor opinion of Jeff Zucker and left with complete respect for the man.

There is a tidal wave of change coming to our industry, one I'll touch on a lot over the next couple of days. I thought it was about to leave all of the established media, too dinosaur in their ways to adapt, swamped in its wake. But Tuesday morning, I saw Jeff Zucker, who nobody would mistake for a surfer dude, don his "baggies" and come out of the break riding the crest of that wave and looking pretty bitchin' doing it.

It'll be interesting to see how all this plays out. Tuesday's stunned silence had turned into a grudging acceptance by Thursday with the head of Olgivy & Mather admitting that the Upfronts didn't really work for them either and clients with product debuting in March might actually be interested in having a new show to help launch it.

We live in interesting times.

Finally, the Zucker reaction below comes from Shelly Palmer, broadcast analyst from and the Huffington Post. He's simply one of the best in the business and worth bookmarking for his daily insights into our rapidly changing industry.

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