NBC Universal Thursday promoted Jeff Zucker to the new post of chief executive of the company's television group, giving him expanded responsibilities even as the network's prime-time viewership has fallen behind those of its two biggest network rivals.
Zucker, who was previously president of NBC Universal television networks, will now head an expanded television group that combines programming, the stations group, operations, and sales into one unit. He will report to NBC Universal CEO Bob Wright.
"We're struggling to rebuild prime time," Wright told reporters in a conference call. "When you lose momentum, it's hard to regain it. In many respects, this organizational change is designed to accelerate the pace of that recovery."
Zucker will retain responsibility for the entertainment division, studio, news, and cable channels.
Randy Falco, previously president of the networks group, will be president of the new expanded television group.
Asked if the promotion effectively made Zucker his heir apparent, Wright said, "Jeff and Randy have a lot of responsibility here. I hope they're in leadership positions for a long time to come." He added he had no immediate plans to retire.
Zucker rose to prominence with his success as executive producer on NBC's Today show, in the early 1990s. On his watch, NBC dominated prime-time television, anchored by such shows as Friends, Frasier, Law & Order, Seinfeld, and ER.
But as each of those shows ran its course, most recently as Friends and Fraiser ended their runs, NBC has been in the new position of struggling to find its prime-time footing, despite recent hits such as Fear Factor and The Apprentice with Donald Trump. Zucker has been bearing the brunt of that criticism in recent months.
In recent ratings, NBC, once in first place, trailed both CBS and ABC in total viewers.
In the new organization, Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal's sports and Olympics, will report to Zucker. He previously reported to Wright.
The company also named Beth Comstock to a new position of president of NBC Universal digital media and market development, reporting directly to Wright.
The company recently signed deals to sell television shows on demand through DirecTV and downloads of shows through Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod and sees digital distribution of entertainment as part of its future.
NBC is 80 percent owned by blue-chip conglomerate General Electric Co. and 20 percent by France's Vivendi. CBS is now owned by Viacom Inc., which is breaking it off as part of a separate company to be called CBS Corp. ABC is owned by Walt Disney Co.