• NBCU's Zucker: "We're at digital dimes now"

    NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker provided the opening keynote interview at the Media Summit in NYC this morning with Businessweek Executive Editor Ellen Pollock. I've seen him speak a number of times and true to form he was pragmatic, quite candid and humorous. Highlights below:

    "We're at digital dimes now" - Zucker of course famously worried aloud about the risk of "exchanging analog dollars for digital pennies," the notion that half-baked online delivery models would only serve to cannibalize traditional profitability. Zucker sees progress, saying Hulu is "well ahead of plan" and is yes, is now making money. Zucker repeatedly praised the success of the company's wide-ranging digital initiatives, but also noted often there is still a lot of work to do. He also wondered aloud whether digital would ever be a 1 to 1 revenue substitute for traditional revenue streams, but that further cost rationalization would help drive profitability.

    "We're in process of finding new economic models" - On the above point, Zucker was candid in saying that the work to be done on new economic models is still experimental and that "a lot of success is often accidental." He readily concedes that nobody has all the answers, and that a key challenge is bridging from the traditional business models to new ones, balancing the interests of older audiences comfortable with the status quo with younger ones that are aggressively embracing the new. Describing his own kids' media activity, which focuses on Hulu, generating their own content and being interactive must give Zucker ample perspective.

    "Technology is unbelievably exciting" - Zucker has always emphasized the importance of technology on NBCU's various businesses and today was no exception. He noted that technology is increasing access to TV programs and movies in unprecedented ways, which is a good thing. However he also candidly observed that it has fundamentally changed the broadcast business, primarily through consumers' use of DVRs and online delivery. All of that, plus NBC's lagging primetime performance, has caused it to completely re-think the broadcast model. He observed that newspapers' current woes can be traced to them not being willing to quetion the fundamentals of their model and the role of technology. Like other video providers, he seems determined to confront realities and avoid repeating this mistake.

    "NBCU is first and foremost a cable programming company" - Zucker has often highlighted the benefits of the two revenue stream cable programming model (affiliate fees and advertising), but this was the first time I've heard him so clearly position the company as being mainly in the cable business. NBCU's stable of channels, USA, SciFi, Oxygen, MSNBC, Bravo, etc. contributed 60% of NBCU's operating profit last year. The networks' ability to "outperform the market, especially in women's programming and news" is key to NBCU's overall success. Zucker noted that USA is increasingly a "must buy" for advertisers, and with its mass appeal, should justifiably be considered the 5th broadcast network.

    "We're hopeful we'll resolve TV.com-Hulu issues soon" - Zucker only briefly touched on Hulu's recent decision to pull its programming from TV.com, which is fast emerging as a Hulu competitor. As has been previously reported, Hulu's attorneys obviously believe TV.com compromised its Hulu distribution agreement as part of its new configuration subsequent to CBS's acquisition of CNET. With a battle looming between aggregators especially in the down economy, I think it remains to be seen whether a settlement can be found.