February 7, 2011 — The Shorenstein Center welcomed Jeff Zucker, former president and CEO of NBC Universal, to a conversation with Alex S. Jones, Shorenstein Center director. With the recent announcement of AOL‘s acquisition of the Huffington Post, the discussion centered around the future of the news in online and television formats. Zucker said that for those who believe that news has a successful future online, “today is a good day” and the merge is “an important step forward.” Zucker revealed that NBC had tried to buy the Huffington Post, but had not been able to negotiate a price.
Drawing a distinction between online news outlets and social media sites, Zucker assured the audience that “journalism will matter in the future.” The danger with social media, Zucker warned, is that “people think they are journalists because they can Tweet.” However, the brands of established news organizations “matter more today” than they have before because “in a world where there are a thousand voices, you have to know who to trust,” he said.
Online news outlets are still developing, Zucker pointed out. “Transitions take time; business models evolve.” “Advertising works,” he said, but it needs to evolve with the new technology, “and we are in an evolutionary period.”
When Jones asked Zucker his thoughts on the relationship between cable news and the growing political polarization in the country, Zucker said that it was “too simplistic” to blame the cable news shows for the incivility. He explained that the shows should be watched for what they are: a form of entertainment, not a source for news.
When asked about making executive decisions regarding television shows on the network, Zucker explained that “there is no magic formula…It’s hard to tell what shows will be successful. You have to believe in something,” and not always look at the ratings. He cited Cheers, Seinfeld, The Office and House as shows that started out with very low ratings in their first few seasons, but eventually became successful because the network producers chose to keep them on the air. Yet a real consideration is the money needed to produce television shows. Traditionally, the money came through advertising, but Zucker foresees a system that will revert to the early days of TV with integrated ads and single sponsorship of shows.
Unlike many people who have been “anticipating the demise of evening news broadcasts for 20 years,” Zucker said he thinks they will last because of the millions of viewers who watch the broadcasts every night.
Zucker compared running a television network in the digital age with working in public service: “Nobody is perfect…and no program is perfect,” but now “there is microscopic coverage of everything,” and “instant criticism” that demands “instant success.” “Everybody is a critic” and thinks they could do better, he said.
This article was written by Janell Sims and the photos taken by Heather McKinnon, both of the Shorenstein Center.