An Open Letter to NBC Universal President & CEO President Jeff Zucker

It's Complicated New York premiere

Dear Jeff:

Been a rough few weeks, eh? Between your network’s colossal short-sightedness and lack of foresight (hello, Big Three automakers!), plus an inability in the past 10 years to bring NBC back to relevancy after nearly two decades of being No. 1 in primetime ratings, first with the “Cosby Show,” then “Seinfeld” and ending a magnificent run with “Friends,” we recognize it ain’t easy being at the top of America’s No. 1 media punching bag.

So it was with equal shock and somewhat awe that we watched over the past two weeks as you and your cronies somehow managed to completely destroy whatever shred of respect and dignity NBC had left by trying to undue the less-than-stellar decision to save some major money getting rid of up to 10 regular shows per week for the cheaper live comedy of Jay Leno at 10 p.m. EST each week night, as your five-year contract with Conan O’Brien, promising him the coveted “Tonight Show” hosting gig finally came up for payment.

Let’s be honest: You’re getting creamed right now—both in the media and by your own TV talent. Two of your stars use their still-highly-watched nightly shows to dismantle you and your network over and over, while competitors are absolutely loving the free jokes and comedic fodder you have given them over the past few days.

It’s definitely not pretty, but as public relations professionals, we are here to help. For one, it looks like you could use the help (and a few friends) right now; and secondly, your cronies and network handlers sure aren’t doing much to help you in the public sentiment department right now. So take a look at the four suggestions below, and at the very least, try to implement some minor parts from what each says. Your fans—and those who may still believe in you at NBC—will thank you for it.

Admit What is Obvious to Everyone (and definitely has some truth to it): NBC has made some major mistakes recently.

Just get that out of the way already. We all know it is true—as I’m sure you do, as well, somewhere in your heart. And despite what some of your handlers may be telling you, the experts and skeptics often are right. So, take some initiative and be at least a little proactive about this: Just come right out and publicly state that, “Yes, NBC has had some missteps in recent years, and things haven’t exactly gone the way we planned. But you know what? We now recognize that, and we’re doing everything within our power to change that. No more excuses, no more petty public fighting. It’s time to right this storied network and create some tremendous content for our wonderful fans. And I’m making it my sole focus over the next 12-18 months.”

People like it when you tell them the truth, and equally, when you actually show some conviction to get things done. Aspire to achieve both.

Take Responsibility for Mistakes—Even if They Aren’t Your Own

Come to reality: You are the leader of this network. You are the public face of it. And you are the one—rightly or wrongly—who gets blamed for each of NBC’s programming mistakes. Repeat this to yourself several times. Now, go out and tell that to the world and your still loyal fans. Own up to your company’s numerous failings over the past 10 years, come to grips with reality that many of those mistakes were the result of a lack of foresight by either you or those under your watch and let the public know it’s time to right those wrongs, and you’re still the man to lead this effort.

Keep Things Private That Should Remain Private

Even in the age of social media and transparency, some things should still remain private. Like tense discussions and negotiations between two of your franchise guys (Conan and Leno) about restructuring their high-profile shows for the betterment of the network. Particularly when those people work in a business that thrives on scuttlebutt and hearsay. Just keep everything private until something has been officially (and contractually) ironed out. That’s common sense, and is something any Joe or Jane could tell you.

Do What is Right

As the public face and leader of the one of the world’s most powerful and well-known media companies, you undoubtedly have a lot on your plate. But that doesn’t mean the basic human quality to do what is right for all parties needs to go out the window. Is it right to nearly ruin what is arguably the world’s most famous broadcast franchise, a 60-year-old TV stalwart that has given your network some of its best fan memories (and ratings) ever by moving it to a time in which it no longer even makes sense to call it the same name? Hell, no! So why even consider that? Why even bring up the idea? The “Tonight Show” franchise goes a lot further than you and your reputation/legacy at NBC. And so do the two guys whom you have now pitted against each other. Rather than take on all of this ill-will against you and your network, next time, start by doing what you know is right: Keeping the public’s perception of your network high.

Always here to help on the PR side,

Keith Trivitt

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  • My only criticism of this post is, and I know it's not the point of the post, but have you seen the current Thursday night lineup on NBC? I don't know if it's showing in the ratings, but Community, Parks & Recreation, The Office and 30 Rock are off the charts funny.

    Top to bottom, it might be my favorite Thursday night lineup they've had! Yes, I said it.

  • Great post! Like Brian mentioned above, NBC has some of the funniest shows on television right now: 30 Rock, The Office, and Parks & Recreation. It's a shame NBC isn't capitalizing on the success of those shows!

    I really wish NBC would come out and say what we all know- Jay Leno's show was simply a way to cut costs, because producing his show would cost a fraction of the price it costs to produce a 1 hour drama.

    It's a shame that the late-night debacle has ruined whatever respect people had for NBC- I just hope they follow some of your advice and rectify the situation (even though the damage is done and Conan is gone)!

  • Laney

    Keith,

    Really enjoyed this post. I think often the big wigs forget that the shows they are creating are for their viewers. Shows, actors and comedians get a following and when you wrong them you wrong us all. We saw that with the Chuck cancellation, the Friday Night Lights deal and now with Conan. I even feel like when Ben Silverman left NBC should have taken the opportunity to revisit all decisions and start with their owning up to mistakes.

    Hopefully Zucker figures out how to handle his company and his public face doesnt take more of a beating.

  • keithtrivitt

    Brian & Sheema – Great points regarding NBC's Thursday-night lineup, which I agree with you, is absolutely stellar! Too bad the network has done little to nothing to build upon this momentum, the many Golden Globes those shows have won, etc.

    Laney – NBC starting by owning up to its own mistakes would be a major boost and a great step toward rectifying many of its problems – not just with the current Tonight Show debacle, which continues on with little to no ownership from Zucker or NBC of how they plan to fix this whole mess. It's a bad situation that is only being made worse by really poor leadership at the top.

  • Exactly. It's also worth mentioning that NBC canceled new drama Southland to make room for Jay Leno, when it was getting good ratings and had been critically acclaimed. How does that make good business sense?

  • keithtrivitt

    Maybe I'm making this up, but is NBC bringing back Southland? I thought I saw commercials for that right after the decision was made to move Jay's show back to 11.35 p.m. EST? If that's true, that right there is a major slap in the face to everyone working on Southland, plus a big indication of lack of leadership and foresight on NBC's part, as it should have found a way to keep a critically-acclaimed show on the air, even if it was moving its time slot, just like Friday Night Lights, which the network shut down far too early in its run.

  • Keith, it's sweet that you think Zucker has a heart. All joshing aside, yes, I agree, leaders should step it up and take the heat.

  • No, TNT bought the series, and the first 13 shows are now airing on that network. I think it might be a better fit for Southland in the end, but obviously it may not get the numbers that it would have if it was on NBC.

    Friday Night Lights is another example of where NBC was incredibly short-sighted! I've never read a negative thing about the show, and I hope that it finally gets the acclaim it deserves!

  • Great point! I kind of feel like NBC didn't give Conan a chance to gather a following. 7 months is nothing- I'm sure it took Jay Leno much longer to earn his following. And I feel like Conan speaks to our generation while older people tend to watch Jay Leno (which is a generalization), and NBC is only concerned with short-term ratings rather than long-term ones. They've essentially alienated people that could be watching the Tonight Show for the next 30 years.

  • mj

    You should check out the Jeff Zucker interview on Charlie Rose from Mon Jan 18. Zucker actually admitted many mistakes and appeared in front of the camera for an interview. Wrong decisions or not, I will give credit to him as I have yet to see anyone from Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Lehman, Morgan Stanley.