Chief Culture Officer watch: the troubling case of Jeffrey Zucker

The troubles at NBC have finally reached CEO Jeffrey Zucker, a guy so deft he had previously escaped criticism. Now the knives are out.

"Somebody needs to pay when a poorly thought-out experiment [i.e., the Leno move to 10:00] fails to the tune of millions of dollars, [and results in] the loss of a bankable star i.e., [the threatened departure of Conan O’Brien] and a public-relations nightmare that has the potential to threaten a proposed mega-merger [i.e., with Comcast].  And there is no doubt that the person who should pay for this instantly legendary [screw-up] is the man at the top who instigated the whole thing: Jeff Zucker." [Chez Pazienza, Huffington Post (as quoted in Macdonald, below)]

No doubt the factors that explain Zucker’s managerial difficulties are several and complex, but one in particular jumps out.

In the words of Richard Siklos, Jeffrey Zucker is someone,

who came up on the news side of the business, and he didn’t care for, or have an affinity for, the entertainment business and Hollywood per se.  [in Macdonald, below]

Apparently, Zucker is good at business…but bad at culture.  He knows how to run the company.  But he has no feeling for what the company does.

This is odd.  After all, NBC is mostly a cultural enterprise.  It works when it can read culture. It works when it can produce culture. Naturally, someone like Zucker needs to have the managerial skills to run a large and complex corporation.  But this is the necessary, not the sufficient condition of his (and its) success.  The sufficient condition is simple.  Zucker should know and love entertainment.  (See Maureen Dowd’s column for a nice treatment of the specific implications of Zucker’s incompetence here.)

It would be one thing if this cultural knowledge were arcane, possessed by a very few people tucked away in an obscure institutions (aka the university).  But what Zucker is missing is the cultural competence possessed by most of his viewers, especially the ones under 35.

Here’s what we know:

1) that popular culture became culture (see the work of Steven Johnson and Naussbaum).

2) that culture went from something very simple to something increasingly complex (for simplicity sake, let’s treat HBO as our case in point).

3) that cultural consumers have become increasingly well informed and sophistication (so says the book of Henry Jenkins).

A odd and uncomfortable possibility suggests itself: that NBC managed to hire one of the few people in contemporary America who doesn’t get TV.

How can this have happened? Checking someone’s cultural competence is pretty easy.  All someone at NBC needed to do was to take Zucker to lunch and quiz him on his favorite shows.  Even a brief conversation would have revealed the depth and sophistication of his knowledge.

And now a second possibility suggests itself: that the people doing the hiring at NBC don’t much know about the culture, either.  There is, perhaps, a systematic bias for business and against culture in the NBC c-suite.

Simply: NBC appears to be all about business and not about culture at a time that the corporation is increasingly about culture even when all about business.

Oh for a CCO…or just a CCO who grasps his culture at least as well as most of his viewers do.


Dowd, Maureen.  2010.  The Biggest Loser.  The New York Times.  January 12, 2010.  here.

Macdonald, Gayle. 2010. Boy Wonder’s Blunder. The Globe and Mail. January 14, 2010.  here.

Nassbaum, Emily. 2009. When TV became art. New York Magazine. December 4.

Note: this post was in the Network Solutions debacle of 2009.  It was reposted December 25, 2010.