The NBC exec says goodbye, leaving behind a legacy of hits (''Friends'') and misses (''The Tonight Show'')

By Lynette Rice
Updated October 01, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

One of television’s most storied — and controversial — tenures came to a not-so-surprising end last week when it was announced that Comcast Corporation chief operating officer Steve Burke, 52, would take over for NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker, 45, once the cable conglomerate completes its takeover. (The deal is not expected to close until year’s end.) The news of the shake-up was welcome in Hollywood, which soured on Zucker after he rose from an exec producer on the Today show to NBC’s entertainment president in 2000. Zucker repeatedly clashed with the creative community — most notably in 2006 when he cut costs by eliminating scripted dramas at 8 p.m. in favor of cheaper reality shows, and again in 2009 when he scrapped 10 p.m. dramas in order to air The Jay Leno Show (we all know how that turned out).

Zucker’s biggest triumphs came from programming stunts (”supersized” Friends episodes), reality shows Fear Factor and The Apprentice, and the cable arena. Under his stewardship, NBC Universal-owned USA, Bravo, and Syfy have become zeitgeist-cracking successes (though rumors persist that Bravo and Oxygen topper Lauren Zalaznick could exit her post once her contract ends next year).

Still, his legacy will be inextricably linked to NBC, which was the No. 1 network when Zucker took it over but has been mired in fourth place for the past six years. Speculation is rampant that Burke will replace NBC Universal chairman Jeff Gaspin and entertainment president Angela Bromstad, who are responsible for developing new (and already struggling) shows like Undercovers and Outlaw. ”It’s so hard to know,” says one network insider, who hopes Burke shows some patience with the new series. ”This team has been producing some decent programming, and [the transition is] paralyzing them.”

Zucker’s Hits and Misses
Today (1992)
As exec producer, he introduced the outdoor concert series — a move all the competitors have copied.

Supersized Friends (2001)
Zucker shrewdly competed with CBS’ Survivor by extending episodes by 10 minutes.

Fear Factor (2001-06)
The reality show earned a reported $600 million in ad revenue over its six seasons.

NBC 2.0 (2006)
He announced that the Peacock would cut scripted programming at 8 p.m. to make way for cheaper reality shows.

Ben Silverman (2007)
Desperate to appear innovative, Zucker hired the eccentric agent-turned-producer to run NBC Entertainment. Silverman’s reign lasted barely two years.

Jay and Conan (2009-10)
After pushing Jay Leno out of The Tonight Show (and into prime time), Zucker paid Conan O’Brien $40 million to leave Tonight after seven months.