The Apprentice’s Sorcerer

021207 article classics The Apprentices SorcererLast week, after 39-year-old Jeff Zucker was crowned president of the newly merged NBC Universal Television Group–now the biggest broadcasting company in America–the only question remaining for the NBC loyalists under Mr. Zucker’s management was: Why stop there?

“I think Jeff would settle for President of the United States,” said Lawrence O’Donnell, a writer for NBC’s The West Wing, talking about Mr. Zucker’s insatiable ambition. “He might take a rest after that.”

But Mr. Zucker would not respond to the call to duty.

“Luckily for the United States of America,” he said on Tuesday, May 19, “we’re not going to find out.”

The day before, across the street from the G.E. Building, inside the Art Deco palace of Radio City Music Hall, Mr. Zucker had commanded the stage, asking hundreds of ad buyers to “IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES,” the instruction that blazed across the vast, 50-foot video screen at the annual prime-time preview of new TV shows, called “the upfronts.” But Mr. Zucker had also been graced with his unprecedented media power just as the actual President of the United States–and his appointed chief at the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell–were having their own say about what possibilities they deemed proper to be imagined on American television sets.

“I think we’re all aware that the temperature has been raised,” said Mr. Zucker, referring to recent F.C.C. assaults on “indecency,” “but I think the best regulation has been self-regulation.

“It’s the viewers who are the ultimate arbiters of whether they want to watch a show or not. They’re the best gauge of what’s appropriate or not.”

Mr. Zucker wanted the F.C.C. out of his sight line so that he could program Fear Factor without fear and let the free market do the policing. But meanwhile, in Florida, President Bush’s brother, Governor Jeb Bush, had effectively intimidated the Walt Disney Company from releasing a Michael Moore movie criticizing his brother’s administration, as Disney’s chief executive, Michael Eisner, reportedly indicated that it might screw up his tax break on theme parks and hotels.

Now NBC was related to its own Florida theme park–Universal Studios–and could also be intimidated by such machinations. Mr. Zucker declined to comment on any scenarios involving his new sister division, Universal, saying those were possibilities for Ron Meyer, the head of Universal Studios, to imagine.

But he couldn’t defer to Mr. Meyer when asked if NBC would consider yanking Jerry Springer and Maury Povich, who host two syndicated, NBC-produced shows seen as potential targets of the gathering F.C.C. storm that may soon target daytime TV.

“No comment,” he said. These are scary times for broadcasters.

Nevertheless, for now Mr. Zucker was interested in a brighter future. The F.C.C.’s crackdown, he said, “had no impact on any of our new development at all.” Not only that, he had also introduced a surprise series called Revelations, a new eight-episode TV series featuring Bill Pullman as a scientist investigating apocalyptic biblical events–a nod to the sudden Hollywood discovery of religious conservatism as a profit center.

“We’ve had that in development for quite some time, before The Passion of the Christ even came out,” said Mr. Zucker. Mel Gibson’s film, he said, had only “reinforced our belief in something that works.”

On May 17, Mr. Zucker, coiled and cool, walked through the crowds in the foyer after the upfront presentation show.

“I feel good,” he said to the group of NBC execs who gravitated around him. He looked–as the future NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams had described him a few weeks before–like the fantasy love child of Don Rickles and Don Corleone. Tanned and plug-like, swarthy and shiny in his pinstriped suit and gold-and-red-striped tie, Mr. Zucker was Mr. NBC, or as Conan O’Brien had imagined him for the movie version of the merger of NBC and Vivendi Universal Entertainment, Mini-Me. Like so many of Mr. O’Brien’s jokes, it was closer to the truth than anyone imagined: Mr. Zucker truly was Mini-NBC.

Charged with programming one of the most complex and far-flung media empires in the world–even CBS president Les Moonves doesn’t get to futz with Viacom cable properties like MTV–Mr. Zucker had moved from Today producer to Burbank programmer to broadcast Corleone. When MSNBC president Rick Kaplan chuckled and did his own version of Mr. Zucker’s lecture-circuit hand gestures, as parodied by Saturday Night Live’s departing Jimmy Fallon, Mr. Zucker flashed Mr. Kaplan a withering micro-smile that said, Not funny, slugger. When a female executive raved about a new show called Medium, starring Patricia Arquette as a woman who can see dead people, Mr. Zucker lobbed convincing curse words to emphasize his conviction: “We have so much shit ready to go,” he said. “We have good stuff. That’s the point. We’re holding Law & Order. That should tell you everything.”

It came out of him in little bursts. “The Office is good,” he said. “Today, they’re all good. Today, they’re all good.”

If you want evidence of Mr. Zucker’s influence, all you have to do is look at the screen. If the schedule-saving megahit The Apprentice was about ambition, street smarts and Machiavellian ingenuity, so too was Mr. Zucker. If Dateline NBC was plugging Friends and The Apprentice with two-hour specials, it was because Mr. Zucker was branding almost anything that moved with Peacock feathers. As Sylvester “Pat” Weaver once was, as Grant Tinker once was, as Brandon Tartikoff once was, so Jeff Zucker is attempting to be NBC.

At the Radio City extravaganza, Mr. Zucker’s influence was revealed in a layered Catskills joke: First, SNL’s Darrell Hammond shuffled out as Donald Trump, complete with soufflé’d hair and puckered lips, followed by Mr. Trump himself, who dispatched the comedian with a “You’re fired.”

“My very good friend Jake Zuckerman brought me here,” said the real Mr. Trump. “Frankly, I’m the only thing NBC has going for it.”

As Mr. Trump preened, Mr. Zucker emerged from behind the gold-lamé curtains:

Jeff Zucker: Um, Mr. Trump?

Donald Trump: Hello, Jeff.

Jeff Zucker: You know what, I’ve got two words for you: You’re hired.

Donald Trump: I should be!

Who said vaudeville was dead?

But now Mr. Zucker could get down to business: hammering home the brand, making Donald Trump into–for his NBC–what Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld had been for earlier versions of the network: the emblem, the spokesman. Somehow, this big, cheesy, unscripted megahit, The Apprentice, had become the savior of NBC’s Thursday nights, and a face-saving legacy for Mr. Zucker’s hitless three-year tenure as head of NBC Entertainment, and had kept him from being the Fred Silverman of his era, a disaster, and had avoided being his Supertrain. But nobody believed that a reality show–the lowest form of television production–offered as much as a scripted show like Friends.

It’s amazing that the scripted sitcom is somehow being called the endangered high-water mark of television culture, but that’s America in the 21st century for you.

“It’s worth noting,” Mr. Zucker said at Radio City, that “12 of the top 20 shows this season were unscripted. It’s no passing fancy.”

To think that just 20 years ago, under Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff, NBC’s breakout defining hit had been The Cosby Show, a sitcom about family values and racial progress, swathed in cable-knit sweaters.

Now, with network TV ratings deteriorating under cable TV, Mr. Zucker had hit ratings pay dirt with The Apprentice, starring a real-estate magnate from the first Trumpazoic era, a time identifiable by archaeological dig, and that the revived member of the tycoon species was re-educating the populace about the pleasures of ambition.

Was this the program that Mr. Zucker wanted to define his time at the network? His Cosby? His Seinfeld?

“It is an incredibly well-produced show,” said Mr. Zucker. “People who want to dismiss shows like this probably haven’t looked at how well produced it is. That’s what people have missed with much of this reality–the high-end reality programs like Survivor and The Apprentice are incredibly well produced. Incredibly well produced, smart upscale programming. We’re all proud to be the home of ER, West Wing and Law & Order, Scrubs and … ”

Go on, Jeff! Say it!

“ … The Apprentice.”

Back at Radio City, the big screen had at one point projected the droopy, still-handsome mug of Mr. Zucker’s latest quarry, Sylvester Stallone, sitting in the audience, beaming, another vintage star from the Supertrain era–when the networks still dominated–when giants still trod 30 Rock.

Mark Burnett–the creator of Survivor, The Apprentice and The Contender, Mr. Stallone’s boxing reality series–insisted that NBC needed Mr. Stallone, and not the other way around. “Stallone is a worldwide megastar,” said Mr. Burnett at the NBC after-party in Rockefeller Center. “Look over there now,” he said. “Everybody wants a piece of Stallone.”

He looked over there. Mr. Stallone was standing before an NBC scrim, mugging for photos with advertising executives.

“He doesn’t need any branding,” he said. “He’s doing this because he cares about boxing, that’s all. He doesn’t need the money, he doesn’t need anything.

“It’s not a plan of branding,” he said. “It’s a plan of art.”

Mr. Zucker had announced a new strategy of year-round, 52-week programming. No more making a big deal of the fall. Now, like cable, the network saw no boundaries–every season was back to school. Mr. Zucker attempted to assuage fears that the scripted program was endangered, presenting Law & Order and Joey as the Shakespearean dikes that would protect television from the complete flood of reality programming. Mr. Zucker’s admirers said he could be trusted, he knew TV inside and out. They made the same case for him that had been made for every successful network executive, bad and good, in the last 50 years, from Pat Weaver to Mr. Silverman to Brandon Tartikoff: Jeff Zucker liked what America liked, he was pure TV gut, bottled in a TV executive.

“He doesn’t try to pander to an audience, he doesn’t try to come up with something gimmicky that they will like,” said Adam Levine, a former NBC News producer and Bush White House press official. “‘What is interesting to people? What would I want to watch?’ That’s how he does it. He doesn’t separate himself from people. He doesn’t overly focus-group things or go with conventional wisdom. He says, ‘I’m the demographic. What do I like?’ And it works.”

As executive producer of Today, Mr. Zucker had honed his instincts on the news side, where he gained the confidence of television professionals: because he knew how to make TV, was trusted for his speed and understanding of how to make, say, a beet-salad cooking segment zing. Not everyone can do that.

Even after Dateline NBC had churned out hours of “investigative journalism” on The Apprentice and Frazier, the television professionals still had confidence that Mr. Zucker, a master at fusing news and entertainment into steroidal prime-time programming–like the DatelineAccess Hollywood sit-down with Ben Affleck and J. Lo–would retain the dignity of the news division.

“You gotta look at it in toto,” said Brian Williams. “Look at the hours Dateline has done on race, on veterans, on education. And that they do a Zeitgeist-y hour on what we’re seeing unfold here is, I think, perfectly understandable. It’s harder and harder these days to be truly pious and godly in television news.”

Mr. Williams described himself as a “huge fan” of Mr. Zucker, who he said often came by the studio for some jovial towel-snapping. Mr. Williams said Mr. Zucker’s favorite expression was “No question.” Responding to Mr. Williams’ observations, Mr. Zucker repeated it often: “No question … no question … no question.” So Mr. Williams insisted he wasn’t worried. “I can afford to sound a little old-fashioned and put blinders on,” he said. “Nobody’s saying to me, ‘Hey, we want to scooch up the temperature at Nightly a little bit.’ No. And I hope it never comes across as pious, but you know, I do this for a living for a reason; otherwise, I’d be working somewhere else.”

Jeff Zucker, said Lawrence O’Donnell, was “the only person in his position who has been a hands-on TV producer and television executive during the period where volcanic eruptions were going on all over the field, that created cable news, that created the expansion of original cable dramatic programming, that saw the introduction of reality in prime time–all the things that have reshaped the map of TV, including the declining share of broadcast audience.”

Well, he might be right.

But in a sense, Mr. Zucker is The Apprentice himself.

“At least it’s not some plastics guy like Bob Wright,” said one network insider, referring to the NBC Universal chief executive. Mr. Wright is widely believed to be grooming either Mr. Zucker or NBC president Randy Falco–the business head of the TV group–as his replacement once he retires. Mr. Wright is 61, and G.E.’s retirement age is 65. And Mr. Zucker, like Mr. Wright a fellow cancer survivor with a competitive streak and the poise of a shark, was ready for whatever might come. “There’s nothing that Jeff Zucker can’t do, and I mean nothing in the world,” said producer Adam Levine. “He’s a natural leader. He’s a natural manager. Do I see a little bit of Jack Welch in Jeff? Absolutely. I think the sky’s the limit with Jeff.” Let’s take his word for it. Mr. Levine worked in the Bush White House and watched Jeff Zucker make Donald Trump the Milton Berle of 2004. Sky’s the limit.