Michael J. Berland
Consultant, author

Michael J. Berland

A strategic adviser and communications consultant who co-authored "What Makes You Tick? How Successful People Do It -- And What You Can Learn from Them."

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Leadership on Leno

Q: NBC's bold decision to move Jay Leno into prime time has been a ratings disaster. How often does a roll of the dice hurt instead of help? Are gamblers more likely to succeed than those who are cautious by nature?

NBC President and CEO Jeff Zucker took a risk in bringing a late-night show to prime time. But just because the experiment seems to be a flop doesn't mean -- as some have said -- that people should question Zucker's value as a leader.

Zucker apparently championed the idea of stripping Leno's low-cost comedy hour across the prime-time schedule in lieu of expensive-to-produce dramas. NBC has been trying to boost its broadcast business, which has been losing audience to the Internet and to cable channels, including those like Bravo, in which NBC has a stake, and which have thrived under Zucker's reign.

What's important is that the prospective new owner of NBC, Comcast Corp., has rightly shown confidence in Zucker, who signed a new three year contract. In fact, my co-author Doug Schoen and I included Zucker as an example of the success archetype we called the "natural born leader" in our book What Makes You Tick?: How Successful People Do It -- And What You Can Learn from Them.

What makes Jeff Zucker a natural-born leader is his combination of skills -- his unique vision, competitive spirit and, above all, his willingness to take risk, as with trying a new time-slot for this format that in recent decades has only really succeeded on late-night TV.

In our book, Zucker was profiled in good company along with others who aren't afraid to take risks in their respective fields: the leaders of Sara Lee, Hearst Magazines, National Hockey League, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Major League Baseball.

Jeff Zucker himself said it best in his interview for our book:

."...I believe you can take risks and try new things and not be afraid and not be beholden to anything that's come before. There's a degree of risk taking in everything. If you're not willing to put yourself out there and take a chance -- to go for it, to win the match --you probably won't have the kind of ultimate success you'd wish for.

"If you're not willing to try something new on the 'Today' show, to try a new kind of programming in prime time, you may never succeed in network television. It's not for the faint of heart; you have to take risks. I think you have to be willing to fail. But if you're not afraid of failing, then you probably never will fully succeed."

By Michael J. Berland  |  January 14, 2010; 12:05 AM ET  | Category:  taking chances Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Jeff Zucker is a natural born leader, all right. He's led NBC from the heights of "Must See TV" to its current status as "Must Flee TV." On HIS watch NBC has been stripped of its leadership in groundbreaking dramas (ER, Law & Order to name a couple) as well as the branding of a blockbuster Thursday night lineup. It's these kinds of blunders that make ordinary folk wonder why they seem to be the only people who actually get called to task for their errors. Wall Street Banks give fat bonuses to the same clowns whose risky trades wiped away shareholder value because (due to market forces) the shares bounced back. Jeff Zucker blew up NBC but now Comcast will reward him for ... putting it back together? Crazy...

Posted by: Omyobama | January 18, 2010 3:49 PM
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Here's a thought. Flip flop Conan and Jay and see what kind of ratings Jay would get. NBC claim for putting Jay on at 10pm(prime Time) was that NBC still made money even though their ratings sucked. and the push for change is due to local news ratings down because of poor 10pm programming. Everyone knows that people tend to stay on the channel they're watching at 10 into the local news and more so for late nighters. How many people fall asleep with the tv on and don't turn it off until midnight or later... I know I do.

Posted by: larry40 | January 18, 2010 9:49 AM
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NBC cannot hold a candle to CBS's shows. That said I never missed the Tonight Show until he left. Conan may be a good guy but a Jay Leno he is not. His jokes are childish and his show is geared to the very young. When he came on I went to Letterman who by the way needs to stop with the nasty jokes on Jay.

Posted by: rymp | January 16, 2010 11:11 PM
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I'm at a loss as to how Zucker qualifies as a 'natural-born leader'. Yes, he's currently a 'leader' of a major network, but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find many successes during his tenure at NBC. Taking risks is no doubt an essential thing for great leaders to do, but when those risks don't pay off - even worse, when they keep not paying off - then it seems to me that those leaders' effectiveness shouldn't be so blithely accepted.

Say what you will about the rapidly changing media environment, but Zucker hasn't made any lasting decisions that indicate that he knows the playing field any better than his counterparts; if anything, he keeps coming up emptyhanded with panicky decisions that seem to doom NBC to an eternal fourth-place finish among the networks.

Posted by: tomd3 | January 16, 2010 4:33 PM
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I have enjoyed the Leno 10pm shows since they have been on. I think he is funny and his guests are for the most part funny and enjoyable also. I also have enjoyed Jim vance and the 11:00 PM news. I have never really been a Fox 5 news watcher. I have watched Jay in the past @ 11:35 ( Tonight Show),but now I cant stay up that late anymore.

I don't watch the Biggest Loser, or any game shows like that. I like Sports, Basketball, Football, and Tennis.

I am sorry Jay is going from the 10 PM spot.

Posted by: apoms2 | January 16, 2010 3:54 PM
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Zucker has been driving NBC into the ground for at least 7 years. He's been making scattershot decisions with no apparent vision for the network, he's made terrible hiring decisions across his executive team, and, going back to his "supersizing" of his Thursday lineup, has consistently chosen to paper over huge holes in his schedule with gimmicks rather than do the hard work of both developing and suppoorting new shows. His total lack of support of Conan's development in the Tonight Show slot is probably the biggest and most visible programming disaster in the history network television. The only way your "analysis" holds up is if your model leader is Nero.

Posted by: triscuit | January 16, 2010 1:13 PM
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Whether Jeff Zucker is a natural-born leader is irrelevant, here. If it ain't broke; don't fix it! Leno and Conan are rich men because of NBC. If I'm making $20M a year to host a show, far be it from me to let my ego get in the way. Despite Letterman's recent "issues," he has never forgotten where his bread is buttered. Zucker went out on a limb; so did Conan. Notice how Leno didn't? No one wins, here. Conan will go to ABC or Fox and pull a Glenn Beck; mired in mediocrity, which will be sad. Leno will return to The Tonight Show after the Olympics. Letterman will stay Letterman. And there, as was said in "The Godfather"--will be the peace.

Posted by: shnewsman | January 16, 2010 12:22 PM
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Yes, leadership requires taking risks, but it also entails weighing those risks, something Zucker clearly did not do. He admitted (heck, he CHAMPIONED the idea) that Leno would have lower ratings (but that would be OK because of lower costs), but neglected to factor in the "lead-in-to-news' issue, something that is a basic tenet of television programming, and has been for 50 years. Surprise surprise, it came true. Again. As it always has in the history of the medium.

Much has been written about how this is hurting the affiliates, which is bad enough, but a significant profit driver of the network is the owned and operated stations, which are suffering the same (sometimes worse) as the affiliates.

No, this qualifies as a colossal blunder in and of itself, never mind the calamity of the damaged reputation of Leno, the loss of Conan, the scrambling for tossed-together replacement programming, and the fact that it has made NBC executives the laughingstock of the industry.

Posted by: miffedone | January 16, 2010 12:10 PM
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How does a clossal blunder that results in a loss with the Conan settlement, loss of a talented star, loss of viewers, damage to your remaining talent, and damage to the NBC brand qualify Zucker as a natural born leader ?

Posted by: REST7758 | January 16, 2010 10:58 AM
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