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Some question his taste, but Zucker laughs it off

NBC executive proud of the ‘Today’ news

SHARE Some question his taste, but Zucker laughs it off

NEW YORK — One year into his tenure as head of NBC entertainment, Jeff Zucker came up with an idea that had even Fox executives questioning his taste.

We're talking about NBC's planned Super Bowl Sunday special edition of "Fear Factor" with creepy stunts performed by Playboy Playmates, shoehorned into a time slot to coincide with halftime of Fox's game broadcast.

That enabled Fox to take the road less traveled — the high one.

"Between the Super Bowl and 'Malcolm in the Middle,' we offer a night of television the whole family can watch together," sniffed Sonya McNair, spokeswoman for the network of "Temptation Island." "NBC's programming choice speaks for itself."

Far from questioning himself, Zucker laughs it off.

It may seem strange, on its face, that some of the more, er, downmarket ideas in television these days are coming from the one chief entertainment executive with a news background.

But for anyone familiar with Zucker's work as executive producer of the "Today" show, it shouldn't be.

"I always believed that the first half hour of the 'Today' show was the hardest and best 22 minutes of news on television, and I took great pride in that," Zucker said. "But then we would turn it into a three-ring circus after 8 o'clock."

Zucker was in charge when Matt Lauer was sent on his first mystery trip around the world, when "Today" sponsored its first wedding, when mazes and small mountains of snow were constructed outside the studio and when Lauer showed up on Halloween dressed as Jennifer Lopez.

Zucker's always been a showman as much as a newsman, and never afraid to appear hokey.

He is also extremely competitive. He instantly calls up "Today" ratings numbers on his computer screen when a visitor mentions the show's recent troubles, even though he has nothing to do with it anymore.

He took the entertainment job with the mandate to get NBC involved in a reality game that it had largely ignored.

Understand all that, and the Playmates, the wriggling entrees on "Fear Factor," the "Spy TV" cameras catching someone trapped with a reckless driver, and the "Weakest Link" appearances by Gary Coleman, adult film star Ron Jeremy and the "Brady Bunch" cast come into focus.

Fox, with "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire" and "When Animals Attack," had generally cornered the market on this fare.

"He's a creative person and he was a lot of fun to compete with," said Shelley Ross, executive producer of ABC's "Good Morning America." "He has a real understanding of pop culture."

Ross may have been less generous if asked about Zucker on the day he sent a helicopter to buzz an outdoor concert held by "GMA," or when he beamed the "Today" show on a Times Square screen overlooking ABC's new studio on its opening day.

"I think I have very mainstream taste," Zucker said. "I think I have a very good gauge of what will work and what will play. I know what I like to watch on television. I think too often people in Hollywood produce programs for people in Hollywood."

Not everyone within NBC was enthusiastic about Zucker's championing of "Fear Factor" and the gimmicky "Weakest Link" special editions.

This is the network of "ER," "Frasier" and "The West Wing," quality its executives love to brag about. Zucker does, too, but without the implicit criticism of the programs that never make the Emmy Awards.

"I think we probably held our heads too high and held our noses at some of the things that were going on in television and let some good things go by," Zucker said.

"I think you can be a broadcaster in the broadest sense of the word," he said. "I think you can have great programs, and I think we do . . . and at the same time, you can have some crazy ideas, too. If you don't do both, then I think you niche yourself into becoming a cable channel."

Zucker said he'll rely on an inner compass to tell him if he's pushed things too far, if some of those crazy ideas seriously damage NBC's reputation.

Sitting in a Rockefeller Center office that overlooks the "Today" show studio eight stories down, Zucker is asked whether any of his stunts, seen with the benefit of hindsight, didn't pass the smell test.

He bounds to his feet, strides over to his office door and opens it to address his assistant.

"What was the stupidest stunt?" he asked.

She cringes.

"Ooh, there were many," she said.

A flood of memories flow between the two of them — Lauer racing one of the world's fastest men in the street, the anchors performing their "dream jobs" for a day, the half hour of shaving and make-up tips. Zucker admits defeat on none of them.

"It was fun," he said. "And, yes, I think we should be doing these ideas in prime-time. If anything, it's a shame we haven't done any more of them yet. But we will."