Jeff Zucker out at NBC, Jon Klein exits CNN amid prime-time losses

Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal, and Jon Klein, CNN president, were shown the door Friday, in a day of upheaval in the TV industry. Prime-time viewers have slipped at each firm.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters/File
Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal, attended a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos in this January 29 file photo.

In a moment of major upheaval in the media industry, on Friday CNN and NBC Universal each announced the replacement of top executives. NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker and CNN President Jon Klein both have been shown the door.

While there are major differences between the two businesses, common themes underlie the personnel moves. Both CNN and NBC Universal are being buffeted, as all media organizations are, by the rapid rise in online competitors. Despite that upheaval, both organizations are solidly profitable. But CNN and NBC have suffered erosion in their prime-time ratings.

Jeff Zucker is the better known of the two figures, and has a reputation as having been a boy wonder. He became executive producer of the immensely profitable "Today" program at age 26. He told New York Times reporter Bill Carter, who broke the story of his departure, that leaving was not his own choice and was “incredibly emotional” and “gut wrenching.”

In a letter to NBC employees, Mr. Zucker said, ‘I’ve spent the last 24 years thinking only about NBC Universal and never contemplated anything else.” He is leaving at the request of NBC’s news owner. In December 2009, Comcast Corp. agreed to buy a 51 percent stake in NBC from General Electric Co. The deal is still subject to regulatory hurdles but is slated to close by the end of 2010.

As Zucker explained to the Times, “I understand it. They spent billions of dollars. It’s the way it goes.” Zucker said he would stay at NBC “until the day the deal closes” with Comcast.

Mr. Klein had run CNN’s US operations since December 2004. The personnel move came as CNN prepares to roll out a major revamping of its prime-time lineup on Oct. 4. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned amid a sex scandal, and conservative newspaper columnist Kathleen Parker will begin an 8 p.m. show. In December, longtime talk show host Larry King will be replaced by British journalist Piers Morgan, who is known to American viewers as a judge on “America’s Got Talent."

The CNN executive made no effort to sell the change as voluntary. "People get shot in our business. I got shot,” Klein told New York Magazine. He did not come to work on Friday.

One reason for the change is that viewership at CNN has declined more than that of its peers, with its prime-time audience down 36 percent from 2009 to 640,000 viewers. Industry leader Fox has 2.43 million prime-time viewers, down 5 percent over that same period.

The Associated Press quoted CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton as saying, “while we are not satisfied with the rating at CNN prime time and they clearly need to get better, CNN as an organization and a business is thriving.”

Still, the feeling of industry upheaval was neatly summarized by MSNBC host Keith Olberman, who tweeted Friday afternoon: ‘So I’ve been out of pocket until just now. Anything new in my TV News industry today?”

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