Amid all the extraordinary sturm und drang surrounding last week’s unceremonious defenestration of Jeff Zucker, it’s useful to remember that he has long been a source of fascination, envy, and schadenfreude. In 1993, nearly seven years after they graduated together from Harvard, my friend Michael Hirschorn, now an Emmy-award winning film producer, wrote a lengthy feature in Esquire, Zuck and Me, about his former classmate, then the 28-year-old executive producer of Today. “Jeff Zucker is the most successful person I know,” Hirschorn wrote. “…He looms as a living infomercial for what pure will to power will score you in the modern world.”
Nearly eight years later, writing in New York, Michael Wolff also weighed in on the topic of Zucker, then 35 and the survivor, by then, of two bouts of cancer. Zucker had just been named to head up the entertainment side of NBC, in Los Angeles, after his highly profitable stint running Today in New York. (Wolff estimated that the program made $500 million a year in profit for NBC.) In his inimitable way, Wolff described Zucker as “the boy genius of post-decline TV,” as “indisputably the most successful man in television,” and possibly “the only successful man in television.” He also insinuated that he was a detail-loving micro-manager whose talent and managerial skills engendered a nearly head-spinning loyalty among his colleagues.
In 2005, another Harvard alum (and another friend), Kurt Andersen, took his turn trying to figure out Zucker. By then, Zucker had been promoted to be the president of NBC and was angling to succeed the legendary Bob Wright as the C.E.O. of NBCUniversal. (GE had added a bunch of Universal assets to NBC in 2004.) Forget a promotion: Andersen wondered how Zucker could survive since NBC had fallen to fourth place from first in the prime-time ratings game, and was losing money hand over fist. He described Zucker as “the very embodiment of highly torqued self-confidence, even arrogance—a self-fulfilling M.O. when the luck was flowing his way, an invitation to Schadenfreude when the luck turns.”