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People Top 5
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PEOPLE Top 5 are the most-viewed stories on the site over the past three days, updated every 60 minutes
- August 17, 1992
- Vol. 38
- No. 7
Rookie of the Year
Younger Than the Show He Produces, Jeff Zucker Juices Up Today
Indeed, the buzz on the boy wonder, who was promoted to his position last December, is that he (along with new co-anchor Katie Couric, 35) has given NBC's 40-year-old morning show a vigorous caffeine jolt. Today, which suffered a two-year downslide in the ratings after Jane Pauley left in 1990, is now running neck-and-neck in the Nielsens with its main rival, ABC's Good Morning America, thanks to choices like the one Zucker made June 11, when he spontaneously extended a scheduled one-hour interview with Ross Perot, then a presidential may be-wannabe, to two hours.
That snap decision—which turned the show into one of the highest-rated Today programs ever—is in sync with Zucker's programming philosophy. "We've gotten away from the morning format of five minutes and see you around," he declares.
And "when something big happens, like the L.A. riots, we throw whatever we were planning to do out the window," Zucker says. In The Washing-Ion Post, Zucker praised Couric and anchor Bryant Gumbel for their handling of the disturbances, adding, "Moan Lunden [GMA cohost] can't cover those stories." Shot back GMA executive producer Jack Reilly: "By my count, the man who questioned her credentials was 11 years old when Joan did her first story for GMA. He probably was learning how to ride a bike."
More likely, he was working on his serve and volley. Growing up in Miami, encouraged by his father, Matthew, a cardiologist, and his mother, Airline, a high-school English teacher, Jed played tennis every day from the time he was 6 until he went to college, competing on the high-school team. "I was passionate about it," says Zucker (who now gets on court "when I can"). He also edited both his junior-high and high-school newspapers. And at Harvard, Zucker, a history major, became editor of the school's lively daily, The Crimson. After graduation, he says, "I didn't know what I wanted to do," but he applied to Harvard Law School. Despite his B-plus average, he was rejected. "I was crushed," he says.
That summer he landed a job with NBC as a researcher for the 1988 Olympics telecast in Seoul. "He was a walking fact machine," Pauley recalls. She recommended Zucker to Today, where he started the following year as a writer and segment producer. When Couric joined the show in 1990 as a national correspondent, she spotted a callow-looking Zucker in a sweatshirt and jeans and remembers thinking "he was pretty dam cocky." But, she adds, "it took me all of one day to be convinced we were simpatico." In late 1990, at 25, he was appointed the show's supervising producer. "There was some skepticism among some of the producers about whether I was old enough or mature enough to handle it," Zucker admits. He did have some anxieties: After his first show as supervising producer, he says, "I went home and threw up."
Now, though, the frenetic pace exhilarates him. By 5:15 A.M. every weekday, a car is wailing outside his Manhattan apartment to whisk him to his office in Rockefeller Center. "The fun part is the control room," says Zucker. "There's something about the immediacy and danger that hooked me. No matter how tired I am, the blood and adrenaline get going."
Given that he doesn't leave his office until the evening news is off the air, and his usual tuck-in time is 10 P.M., Zucker is single—and without a steady girlfriend—and will probably stay that way for a while. Still, he says, "it's important that I have my friends and that I still date and go to screenings. Otherwise, I would go nuts." Another stress reliever is his addiction to reruns of The Honeymooners. "I've seen every episode at least five times," he says.
Zucker claims, "I have no idea where I'm going from here." Nor, he maintains, does he worry about it, though he does fret a tad about his advancing years. "I was renewing my driver's license this April, and I realized I was 27 years old," he says. "I thought, 'Wow! Now I am old.' It bummed me out." Of course, with age comes esteem—sort of. "The staff respects me now," says Zucker, "as evidenced by what they gave me for my birthday—a Doogie Howser medical kit and a Fisher Price briefcase."
TOBY KAHN in New York City
- Toby Kahn.
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