In an abrupt move, the network on Thursday announced that Today show executive producer Jeff Zucker will replace embattled boss Garth Ancier as president of the network's entertainment division.
Zucker, a self-described "outsider from the inside," will take the helm at the beginning of January, after six years overseeing one the network's most successful programs. The 36-year-old replacement--whose background is primarily in sports and news--has little experience in entertainment programming. But NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa said Thursday Zucker's background putting together a live, three-hour show every day has put him in touch with viewers' likes and dislikes.
"If you think about Jeff, he made hundreds of decisions about popular culture every day," Sassa said in a conference call. "And we hope it's going to provide us with new alternatives and opportunities."
NBC's announcement effectively ends the 18-month reign of Ancier, the programming whiz who built successful franchises at Fox and the WB, but has had a rough go at the Peacock. Though the net remains a leader in the ratings, it's mainly due to the strength of veteran shows like ER and Frasier.
And after presiding over an expensive, flop-filled start to the season, Ancier's future had been in doubt. Already, NBC has yanked five shows: The Michael Richards Show, Deadline, Tucker, Daddio and Titans, one of Ancier's personal faves. Only Ed, DAG and Cursed remain.
Ancier also reportedly took flak earlier this year for not reacting more quickly to the recent reality-show craze, spawned by CBS' Survivor.
But Sassa said the problems with Ancier were more administrative than creative. "There are certain parts of the programming job that Garth wasn't comfortable with," Sassa said. "He's a great guy, I respect his intellect and I respect his abilities...but he and I decided this was not the right fit for him."
Sassa said he is working on a possible development deal to keep Ancier aboard. Meanwhile, he approached Zucker two weeks ago about the position. Zucker signed the deal this morning, and he will relocate to Burbank for the new job.
"I come as an outsider from the inside," Zucker said. "I think that can benefit all of us. I know what's important to the success of a prime-time schedule and I can provide a fresh set of eyes to look for that."
Zucker, who served as executive producer of NBC's morning show since 1994 and recently presided over the show's expansion to a third hour, said jumping into entertainment was "always something that's been in the back of my mind."
But he also fended off questions about his experience in Hollywood. (One reporter even asked whether Zucker had ever read a script. The answer is yes.) When asked to list his favorite shows, Zucker ticked off Law & Order, The West Wing, The Practice, Friends and ER.
And, he cracked, "Frasier, Frasier, Frasier...and Frasier" (a joke referring to the network's tense negotiations to hold onto its hit sitcom).
Zucker also got a boost from NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, who said, "Jeff is one of the aging boy geniuses of our business."
"What he'll bring to his new assignment is a great intelligence and a great understanding of the medium," he added. "He'll probably take entertainment in some new direction."
Preferrably upward, NBC hopes.