When It Comes to Executives, What Do You Do When the Problem is You?

Moving Jay Leno to 10 pm was one of Jeff Zucker's decisions that didn't quite work out as planned.
Moving Jay Leno to 10 pm was one of Jeff Zucker's decisions that didn't quite work out as planned.

Using weasel words to deflect blame is a pretty common tactic and it is something that executives with their tail on the line have learned the fine art of doing well. Jeff Zucker, the soon-to-be former head of NBC Universal, certainly is no exception to this.

Zucker blames the executives he hired for the downfall of NBC’s Entertainment division (among other things). He’s quoted in the New York Post saying, “I didn’t find the right people, find the right shows, and that was my responsibility. I never got the team right, until recently.” He also said last month, “I got the executives wrong at NBC Entertainment. And we couldn’t turn that around. I made bad choices there.”

He made some bad choices indeed.

Comcast aims to stop ratings free fall

With Comcast taking over NBC Universal at the end of this year, plans were finalized to take Zucker out of the top spot. While Zucker claims the move is a mutual decision (“I came to grips with the right time for me to move on and at the same time Comcast said to me they wanted me to move on, so we kind of got to the same place”), it certainly seems like he believed he was doing a good job recently.

But that runs contrary to the standard performance metric in the entertainment world: ratings. As the Los Angeles Times writes:

Every now and then a number leaps out.

Friday morning it was the size of NBC’s Thursday’s night audience. On a night that NBC owned for decades, the network averaged less than 5 million viewers. To put it into some context, more people watched antics of Snookie and The Situation on the season finale of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” than NBC averaged for the evening. The CW was only 1.5 million viewers behind NBC. Both MTV and the CW are available in far fewer homes than NBC.

For a network that was once a part of “The Big Three,” being relegated to the fourth place slot on any given day and getting beaten regularly by cable channels isn’t anyone’s idea of success. Who’s to blame Comcast for wanting to bring in someone else?

Personal responsibility? Sorta…

What continues to strike me as amazing is Zucker’s response to criticisms leveled at him for his running of the entertainment wing of NBC. He continues to deflect charges of mismanaging the late-night fracas with Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno. If you remember correctly, he led the charge behind eliminating NBC’s regular entertainment programing at 10 pm, moving Jay Leno’s show to that spot and running the O’Brien version of The Tonight Show at it’s usual 11:35 spot.

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And what about his half taking responsibility, half throwing it on other executives, writers and producers? That’s shameful executive behavior at its finest.

When everything is going wrong in one of your divisions and you’ve only made matters worse in the last three years, here’s a clue: the problem is you. There’s not a major decision in NBC’s entertainment division that he didn’t touch and saying the employees weren’t there or the shows weren’t there is a long way from taking responsibility.

President Truman had a sign on his desk that read “The Buck Stops Here.” It’s a motto that every executive (especially Chief Executive) should take to heart, embrace and deal with.

Unfortunately, CEO behavior (however pale) doesn’t keep them out of the job market. This looks to be the same as it seems; Zucker will be rewarded with a job waiting for him after he leaves NBC. As my colleague John Hollon has mentioned before, it is nice to be a CEO during the lagging recovery.


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