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VULTURE DROPPINGS OF THE WEEK: Jeff Zucker

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At the center of NBC’s late night firestorm is Jeff Zucker, the network president and the brains behind the Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno changeover. He’s a man so slimy and boneheaded that there’s a grassroots campaign against him (not an important one, but still a movement nonetheless).  He’s also the man whom Jon Stewart has dubbed the “Dick Cheney of television” for his ruthless decisions. The difference between the two, though, is that at least one of them is competent.

Zucker has had one of those careers where everything just kind of fell into place. He graduated from Harvard in the mid-eighties (where he reportedly had fellow Harvader and future nemesis, Conan, arrested) and, after a failed attempt at getting into Law school, he got hired at NBC as an Olympics researcher. This led to a gig as a field producer for The Today Show and in 1992 he became executive producer. His most notable contribution was the outdoor concert series.

In 2000, he was appointed as president of NBC Entertainment, and found success with such things as keeping Friends on the air and the reality gross-out show, Fear Factor. After that, the more he got promoted (eventually to President and CEO of NBC Universal), the more the network tanked. Since 2004, it has been dead last among the majors (Fox, ABC and CBS). The Tonight Show changeover, Zucker’s latest and most notorious failure (or should I say “fiasco”, in the words of Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown), is most certainly not his first. These other disasters were his brainchild as well:

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1. Good Morning Miami (2002)

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This was a show that was personal to Zucker and semi-autobiographical. He grew up in Florida and contributed to The Miami Herald before flying off to Harvard. That’s probably why Good Morning Miami ultimately failed. Nobody really cared to see a glorified account of his own rise to network power. The sitcom centered on an up-and-coming young news producer (Mark Feuerstein — an actor who pops up everywhere and yet is completely unknown) and his wacky TV News staff.

In The LA Times, Howard Rosenberg wrote:

Delivered by Will & Grace creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, Good Morning, Miami is occasionally funny while broad, crude, gratuitously sexual and plump with stereotypes.

Its life span: Barely two seasons (2002 – 2004).

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2. Coupling (2003)

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In the eve before Friends impending exit, Zucker was mega-stressed about finding a replacement for it. So he did what any network programmer would do. He looked to the BBC and saw potential for an American hit in this:

How could he lose? Coupling was a huge success in England, lasting four seasons (on the BBC, that’s a while). Things didn’t go quite as planned for the ill-fated remake.

Upon its premiere in September of 2001, Dan Odenwald wrote in Metro Weekly:

The first two episodes are as unsatisfying as they are unfunny…In spite of this, there’s hope for Coupling. The cast seems genuinely bored with the material (that’s a good thing), and there’s room for the plot to grow. More important is that NBC appears committed to the program and might give it the time to finds its legs. I suspect fans may one day look back on the first few episodes as quaint, dated accidents.

That day never came. Coupling received bad press and didn’t even make it to the New Year. Once an “unfunny, quaint” show, always an “unfunny, quaint” show.

Its life span: Barely half a season (2003 – 2003).

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3. Father of the Pride (2004)

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The first major flop after Friends left the air was this primetime toon from Dreamworks Animation and producer Jeffrey Katzenberg. Father of the Pride, about the wildlife animals who work in Sigfried & Roy‘s Las Vegas show, cost an estimated $2 million per episode. Zucker took a chance on the idea, but people just weren’t ready for a weird CGI cartoon for adults and kids.

In EW, Ken Tucker wrote:

What’s most disappointing about Pride is that the writing coasts on the notion that we’ll find anything coming out of the mouth of a sleek cartoon critter inherently funny; I think that novelty wore off around the time of Mickey Mouse. Father of the Pride could use fewer sex-addled moments between Larry [the main character voiced by John Goodman] and his wife and more scenes with what Siegfried refers to as ‘magic, you fickle bitch.’ Otherwise, it’s the viewing audience that will prove to be a fickle…bunch.

And were they ever a fickle bunch. The ratings simply weren’t good enough to justify the show’s hefty price tag. It was pulled off the air in time for November sweeps and the unaired episodes were later dumped into their schedule to fill dead space.

Its life span: Barely half a season (2004-2004).

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4. Joey (2004)

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This was the sitcom that Zucker really hoped would be the official Friends replacement, seeing as Matt Leblanc would be portraying lovable dimwit Joey Tribbiani again. After much hype, however, Joey premiered to lackluster reviews.

In The Chicago Tribune, Sid Smith wrote:

Sadly, NBC’s ‘must-see TV’ may be well on its way to ‘maybe-if-I’m-doing-nothing-else programming…Joey, built around Matt LeBlanc’s character on Friends, plays precisely as one-sixth of a sitcom, a grim reminder of all those stillborn Seinfeld spinoffs.

Despite its rocky arrival, the cast was all smiles when they appeared on Ellen:

And as it got worse and worse (particularly in the ratings), Zucker was even more reluctant to pull the plug as to avoid colossal embarrassment. Of course, he eventually did have to bite his pride and pull the plug in May of 2006, after two seasons on life support.

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5. The Ben Silverman Era

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Ben Silverman was appointed as head of NBC’s Entertainment division in 2007 in what is widely considered to be Zucker’s biggest mistake. Silverman was an opportunistic producer and head of his own production company, Reveille. Under his watch, NBC’s programming became a huge mess and cemented the network into fourth (otherwise known as last) place.

Many of the shows were from Reveille, maybe not-so-coincidentally. Sure he’s responsible for such cult hits as Chuck and The Office, but he’s also responsible for such canceled “gems” as American Gladiators, America’s Toughest Jobs, The Baby Borrowers, Bionic Woman, Celebrity Circus, Chopping Block, Crusoe, Fear Itself, Journeyman, Lipstick Jungle, Momma’s Boys, My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad, My Own Worst Enemy, Quarterlife, The Singing Bee,Howie Do It, Kath & Kim, Kings, Knight Rider and Life .

“The No Hit Maker”, as Time Magazine not-so-affectionately dubbed Silverman, was swiftly ousted in July of 2009. If there’s one legacy that he and Zucker will leave behind, it’s what not to do when you run a network.

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