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Jeff Zucker, former NBC Universal President and CEO, greets audience members after his Feb. 15 talk at the Kellogg School. “It’s cheap to be first, but it’s expensive to be right,” Zucker told the crowd.

Jeff Zucker

The new media world

As media companies compete for profits, consumers are the big winners, says former NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker

By Amy Trang

2/18/2011 - The next five years will see more changes in the media industry than the last 50 years.

It’s a sweeping but realistic forecast by former NBC Universal President and CEO Jeff Zucker, who spoke Feb. 15 at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School.

“There always has been change, but not this pace of change,” Zucker said, citing as one example the impact of the iPad on the media industry in the two years since the product was released.

Zucker shared his predictions on the future of the media world, along with the leadership lessons he learned during his nearly 25-year tenure at NBC, where he began as a researcher and moved through the ranks to become CEO of NBC Universal. Zucker’s talk was the latest in the Kellogg School’s J. Ira Harris Speaker Series.

Zucker said more media content has been consumed than ever before through different channels, from computers to phones to the traditional TV. It will be up to the media companies to figure out how to re-aggregate these views and monetize them.

“The big winner will be the consumer,” Zucker said. “You will be in charge, in how you want to consume content, when you want to consume content — and it will be at a lower cost.”

Zucker believes that networks will still exist, but will have to compete against Internet channels. Journalism is a noble profession important to democracy, but “everyone thinks they are a journalist if they have a blog or a flip camera,” Zucker added. However, established brands, such as NBC, will stand out by building credibility with viewers.

“It’s cheap to be first, but it’s expensive to be right,” he said.

Zucker’s decisions about changing the status quo may have unsettled his colleagues at NBC, but they led to great accomplishments, including moving “The Today Show” to an outside studio and creating Hulu, an online streaming video service.

“People would say, ‘We don’t do it that way,’” Zucker said. “But sometimes as a leader, you have to say, ‘This is what we have to do.’ We had to try (Hulu) or run the risk of what happened to the music industry.”

Zucker said leaders also have to build a thick skin as they take risks. That especially rang true during the “The Tonight Show” controversy in 2010, when NBC reorganized the late-night lineup. The move resulted in the departure of talk show host Conan O’Brien and much media scrutiny and uproar among fans.

“I don’t regret trying it,” Zucker said. “I regret that it didn’t work.”

Zucker was let go from NBC Universal in January, after Comcast completed the merger of the company. But there are no hard feelings from Zucker, who said he’s unsure what his next step will be after leaving the only company he’s worked for since graduating from college.

“It was a very bittersweet experience,” Zucker said. “It was all I ever knew. But I understood it and respected their decision.”