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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Jeff Zucker

Entertainment Mogul

By LI S. ZHOU, Crimson Staff Writer

Almost exactly 25 years ago, Jeffrey A. Zucker ’86 was in the middle of his graduation ceremony at Mather House when he received a phone call. It was NBC. The network hired him later that day as a researcher for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.

Zucker’s phone has been ringing off the hook ever since. As one of America’s most prominent television executives, Zucker quickly ascended the ranks at NBC, and was named President and CEO in 2007 at just 41 years old.

But friends and colleagues say that the intelligence, drive, and ambition which have served Zucker in his career were evident long before he began his explosive rise in the television industry.

A HUNGRY UNDERGRAD

Zucker’s passion for media first developed as a young man growing up in southeast Florida. In high school, he not only served as editor of the school newspaper, but also worked as a freelance reporter for The Miami Herald and attended Northwestern University’s prestigious High School Institute for journalists.

Steven A. Nussbaum ’86, his freshman and sophomore year roommate at Harvard, describes Zucker’s interest in writing as practically palpable.

“Jeff was extremely focused and driven,” Nussbaum says. “From the day he arrived at Harvard, he knew he wanted to write for The Crimson.”

Entering his first comp meeting for the publication’s sports section, Zucker was immediately sized up by Michael J. Bass ’83, the sports editor at the time.

“He was a scrawny kid from Miami who wore a down coat starting in October and was already a helluva good writer,” says Bass. “My first impressions were that he was smart as hell, creative, a bit cocky, and had a determination to succeed that was unbelievable.”

Another Crimson writer, Rebecca H. Hartman Edwards ’85, says she sought to mentor the ambitious freshman.

“I was a year older and took him under my wing ... or so I thought,” she says. “In less than a year, he was the Sports Editor, handing out my assignments and editing my copy.”

Edwards also lived in Mather House with Zucker, casting him as a janitor in the house’s soap opera parody, “Mathering Heights.” This willingness to partake in a playful theatrical role underscored the balance between Zucker’s intense drive and love of having fun.

Later becoming President of The Crimson, he continued the storied rivalry with The Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine. Zucker even once caught Lampoon President Conan O’Brien ’85 stealing copies of the newspaper and had him arrested.

“It all seems a little silly in hindsight, like college hijinks, but back then it seemed important and fun,” Zucker says.

PURSUING THE DREAM

Bass went to work for ABC Sports as an Olympics researcher after graduation, and invited Zucker to take a freelance job covering the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles during the summer after his sophomore year.

“I was the writer for the morning show with Frank Gifford and Kathleen Sullivan, and Jeff was my sidekick and we had a blast. He was definitely bitten by the TV bug,” Bass says.

Two years later, Bass had moved to NBC to work on the 1988 Olympics and reached out to Zucker again, hiring him as a researcher.

Referring to the transition from print journalism to television, Zucker says, “I love TV—the reach and breadth of it—so that was incredibly intoxicating.”

Deferring an acceptance to law school at the University of Virginia, Zucker dove headfirst into his position at NBC. He became executive producer of The Today Show in 1992, NBC Entertainment President in 2000, NBC CEO in 2005, and finally President and CEO of NBC Universal in 2007, a position he held until fall 2010, when Comcast took over the network and opted to bring in its own leadership team.

During Zucker’s time at NBC, he played an important role in shaping The Today Show, introducing outdoor concerts on the show and collaborating with Bass to craft a new segment entitled “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” These innovations propelled the show to the number one program in its time slot, a position it has held for over 15 years.

Among his other projects, Zucker launched hits like The Apprentice, introduced “super-sized” comedy episodes extended from thirty minutes to an hour, and worked with Fox to develop the streaming video website Hulu.

With NBC’s cable channels CNBC and MSNBC raking in strong profits at the time of his departure, the main criticism of Zucker’s tenure at the network was the drop in primetime ratings. In an interview with The New York Times in September 2010, he cited “not moving quickly enough” on improving NBC Entertainment as his biggest mistake.

WORK HARD, PLAY HARD

Allison L. Gollust, Zucker’s publicist since their work together on The Today Show, recalls the diligent leadership Zucker brought to the company.

“He works incredibly hard, longer hours than anyone I know. And he can get done in a day what it would take most people three days to accomplish,” she says.

But Gollust also notes that Zucker’s leadership was marked by compassion for his employees.

“He is famously known for giving everyone he works with a nickname,” she says. “He kept a softball team going for most of his years at NBC. He believed in working hard and playing hard too.”

Zucker lists his four children as his proudest personal achievement and the “totality of his 25 years at NBC” as his most notable professional one. In addition to skyrocketing to the position of top executive, Zucker has battled two bouts of colon cancer, without missing a beat at work.

“I’ve never had a day off since I graduated from college,” Zucker says, “So I’m enjoying this first opportunity to take some time and think about what I really want to do. I’m still interested in media, I’m interested in digital, and I’m interested in government service.”

According to Gollust, his fierce commitment to success remains coupled with a genuinely jovial personality and devotion to friends, family, and colleagues. She recalls that when he made the decision to leave The Today Show and announced his decision, most of the people in the room began to cry.

“I have never seen a room react like that one did,” she says. “I often say that the people who work closely with Jeff would lay down in front of a bus for him. He earns their loyalty, their friendship, and their respect.”

—Staff writer Li Zhou can be reached at lizhou@fas.harvard.edu.

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CollegeHarvard in the WorldCommencement 2011Class of 1986