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Q&A With Jeff Zucker

The head of NBC on why Deal or No Deal is so addictive and what he said to Katie Couric when she told him she was splitting for CBS.

(Details. Viewed here, Photo: Peter Rad)

Q: NBC used to be the channel to watch: Seinfeld. Friends. Frasier. Now it’s in last place among the big four in prime time and everything is riding on . . . Howie Mandel?!
A: Well, not everything. But that’s funny. Look, I think the best ideas are the simplest ones. And Deal or No Deal, which Howie hosts and is a huge hit, is not complicated. It’s not hard to figure out. And it’s impossible to stop watching.

Q: Yeah, but just think about this with me for a minute: Howie Mandel?
A: I was a little nervous at first. Howie hadn’t done anything like this, hadn’t been on national television for a long time, hadn’t been front-of-mind for a long time. He had been doing stand-up. You kind of weren’t so sure about it. But he turned out to be the perfect choice, the perfect host. It must be the clean-shaven head, and his penchant for long-legged women with suitcases. You know, success comes from the strangest places.

Q: So when does the screaming start around here?
A: We save the yelling for the afternoon—no, really, I’m not like that. I like to be encouraging. I like to support and reassure. I’m not a screamer. Unless I’ve asked someone to do something a few times and it still isn’t done.

Q: You used to be Katie Couric’s producer at Today. You’re friends. What did you say when she told you she wanted to jump ship to CBS?
A: I told her that I understood the desire to leave the morning grind, but I also told her that I thought I’d never have a job as fun as the Today show and I thought that she would miss it incredibly as well, and that it was the greatest use of her talent. But you know, we would never stand in the way of where her heart was.

Q: Is it true you’re being groomed to succeed Bob Wright as head of NBC Universal?
A: I have no idea, and I don’t worry about it. I’m just trying to make sure that the television group succeeds. And everything else takes care of itself. It’s not what I think about.

Q: There are critics who say you’re like Teflon, that you’re always failing upward.
A: Look, we work in a business where every move is scrutinized and there is so much ego at stake, and you can’t get caught up in it. Most of what is written is gossip and innuendo, not based on fact. You just have to learn to ignore it. If you do a good job and you do what you think is right, then you’re going to be fine.

Q: Do you ever get tired of people like me showing up and asking these questions?
A: No, because for 10 years people like you showed up and talked about how can we sustain being in first place for so long. So you have to take the bad with the good. Right now the TV group is having tremendous success, whether that’s at Telemundo or NBC News or CNBC or our TV stations. But we’re not going to get credit for that success until we fix the most prominent piece of the portfolio—and that’s prime time. But that’s a little bit like saying “American foreign policy is really great—we just have this one problem: Iraq.”