CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt has done "a very good job" as CEO of General Electric, says the former head of NBC Universal, Jeffrey Zucker.
Mr. Zucker made his comment in response to a question I asked at the annual alumni luncheon of the Harvard Crimson, which was Saturday at the Harvard Faculty Club. Mr. Zucker had said that because of Saturday Night Live and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, NBC had a well-developed tradition of "making fun of management."
Speaking of making fun of management, I asked, what about GE CEO Immelt? GE's stock is down sharply since the Jack Welch days, the federal government stepped in to guarantee the company's bonds, Mr. Immelt is chairman of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, and the company's zero U.S. corporate income tax bill is front-page news. I asked Mr. Zucker, who was president of the Crimson eight years before I was, what he made of all this, and what it was like to have to cover it at NBC while it was owned by GE.
After joking about skipping to the next question, Mr. Zucker said that Mr. Immelt had been a "very supportive" boss. "GE never interfered with the coverage ever," he said. "You end up overcovering them because you don't want to be accused of not covering them."
He said Mr. Immelt has "been dealt an incredibly tough hand," following, in Jack Welch, a highly regarded executive, and then having to face the consequences of both the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the financial meltdown. "I think by and large he's done a very good job," Mr. Zucker said.
Asked by another questioner about his own failures and what he learned from them, Mr. Zucker said, "I was not able to get NBC Entertainment, our prime-time schedule, turned around." He said of the network prime-time shows, "It was 5% of our bottom line, but it was 105% of our perception."
"I put two people into those jobs, and they both failed," he said. "I screwed that one up twice."
One thing Mr. Zucker certainly did not screw up was his assessment of the newspaper industry. He brought a copy that Harvard had provided him of his October 24, 1981 application to Harvard College. He had written on it on a typewriter after a high-school internship at the Miami Herald. "Newspapers in this country are a dying breed," he wrote then — in 1981, long before the current round of predictions of Internet-driven deaths of newspapers. "The future does not look promising for the newspaper industry." More promising, he thought then, was cable news, which was growing rather than contracting like newspapers.
Today, he said, "as a printed product, shy of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, I think it's a tough proposition." He said that he'd read the New York Times was looking for a sports editor and thought that might be "fun," then realized it was the New York Times and "all I'd be worried about is cutting costs," and figuring out whether to put stories online first.
Mr. Zucker said he thought the cable news landscape of Fox News and MSNBC has "gotten a little too heated" to the detriment of democracy, but he also noted, "if you don't like it, you don't have to watch it."
As for MSNBC, "We didn't have a secret meeting where we said, 'maybe we should just go left,'" he said. Rather, "people started watching Keith Olbermann," and programmers planned the rest of the schedule to "flow" with his show.
In a world in which "everybody's a journalist because they have a blog and a flip camera," Mr. Zucker said, "brands matter more than ever."
"The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are more credible and more important now than ever," he said.
In response to a question about what advice he'd give graduating seniors, Mr. Zucker said that as a college senior, he didn't get into Harvard Law School. Though it was a disappointment at the time, "I thank God every day that I did not get into Harvard Law School," he said. "I think maybe I should apply to Harvard Law School and see what happens now."
Instead Mr. Zucker took a job starting in August 1986 as an Olympics researcher for NBC and stayed at that company until February 1, 2011.
Mr. Zucker also defended CNBC from Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" criticism that it contributed to the economic crisis. He said that while he respected Mr. Stewart, "I think he was completely out of line on that one."
"Everybody's looking for a scapegoat," he said.