While they were undergraduates at Harvard, current NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker had late night talk show host Conan O’Brien arrested.
Zucker, then president of the Harvard Crimson, dispatched the police to the Harvard Lampoon office after O’Brien, who was president of the campus humor magazine, organized the burglary of all of the Crimson’s newspapers.
“He only forgave me when I gave him the Tonight Show,” Zucker said to a crowd of about 100 at a Branford College Master’s Tea Thursday afternoon.
Since their days as college rivals, Zucker and O’Brien have become close friends, and both men hold top positions that mirror their undergraduate interests. Zucker, named president of the NBC Universal Television Group last May, is responsible for all of the network’s programming excluding sports and the Olympics, as well as studio operations and global distribution.
Born and raised in Miami, Zucker said he was unsure about his future when he graduated from college and fell into the television world by chance.
“I got rejected from Harvard Law School,” he said. “Every day since then I thank God I didn’t get in. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, because if I had gotten in, I would have gone and I never would have worked in television.”
Zucker soon began working at NBC Sports after a friend he had met during a summer internship offered him the job. He started at the company in August 1986 and has been there ever since.
In addition to sports coverage, Zucker has extensive experience overseeing news and entertainment programing. After he went to work on the Today Show at the request of news anchor Jane Pauley, he was appointed the show’s executive producer at 26 years old, the youngest in the program’s history. Nine years later, he moved to programming and became the president of NBC Entertainment.
In his current executive position, Zucker said he has far fewer day-to-day responsibilities than he did in his previous jobs, but more overall accountability.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. “I thrive on that pressure.”
Zucker faces plenty of pressure today, as NBC ranks fourth in ratings among all major television networks. Its low position stands in sharp contrast to a decade-long run as the top ranked network, which ended a few years ago when the hit shows “Friends” and “Frasier” went off the air.
“For 12 years I only knew winning,” he said. “The thirteenth year turned out to be unlucky … we’re not number one this year, and we’re probably not going to be number one next year. We have to be realistic and patient.”
Zucker said he remains optimistic about NBC’s newest shows, including “My Name is Earl” and the American version of the British show, “The Office.” Clips of the two new comedies were projected on a large screen in the Branford common room.
When asked if he still enjoys television after 20 years in the business, Zucker said he spends the most time watching news and athletic programming. While he said he watches NBC shows such as “Law & Order” and “ER,” he also enjoys hits from other networks.
“I love ‘Desperate Housewives,'” he said. “It’s a guilty pleasure. I enjoy watching ‘The Sopranos.’ I just can’t remember the last time it was on.”
Zucker also addressed more serious issues, including the current controversy over media censorship by the Federal Communications Commission. He said censorship should not be a government concern.
“At the end of the day, the viewers decide,” he said. “I think the government should leave it to us to self-police. The viewers and the advertisers will ultimately hold us responsible, and we will lose our jobs because of them.”
Some students said they were surprised to hear that Zucker had been so unsure of his career path after college.
“It was refreshing, as a freshman who has no idea what he wants to do in life, to hear Zucker say that most of the time he had no idea what he wanted to do either,” said Sam Yellen ’09.
Others said they found his comments insightful because he related entertainment to other fields.
“I thought he was really articulate,” said David Nitkin ’07. “It was one of the best Master’s Teas I’ve been to.”