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msnbc.com news services
updated 9/24/2010 4:55:32 PM ET 2010-09-24T20:55:32

NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker, who rose from a youthful producer at the "Today" show to run the multifaceted media business, said he would step down after cable provider Comcast takes control of the company later this year.

Zucker, the company's CEO, told employees of his planned departure in an e-mail he sent Friday, and Comcast's chief executive said that he wished him well.

"It has been a great run and I've been incredibly fortunate," Zucker said in his e-mail.

The possible change-in-command had been looming since last December when Comcast Corp. agreed to buy a 51 percent stake in NBC Universal from General Electric Co. That deal still hasn't cleared regulatory hurdles, but that is expected around the end of the year.

Steve Burke, Comcast's chief operating officer, is likely to oversee the joint venture which will include NBC Universal.

Zucker, 45, said in an interview with The New York Times that Comcast's chief operating officer, Steve Burke, had made it clear in a meeting two weeks ago that the company sought to move on with new leadership.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Zucker was one of three high-profile media executives to make news Friday with their departures.

Struggling CNN fired Jon Klein, the head of its U.S. network. CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton said Klein is being replaced by Ken Jautz, who currently runs HLN. The former Headline News Network has been a success in recent years with a switch to an opinionated prime-time lineup.

And Steve Wadsworth announced his resignation as head of Walt Disney Co.'s interactive media group after more than a decade running the unit, according to FT.com.

Zucker said he did not know what he would do next. "I don't yet know what my future will bring," he said.

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Zucker also said he felt it was the right decision for him to leave and the right decision for the company. "Comcast will be a great new steward, just as GE has been, and they deserve the chance to implement their own vision," he said in the e-mail.

Klein, a former CBS executive, has never been able to solve the puzzle of building a prime-time lineup competitive in the ratings. CNN badly trails top-ranked Fox News Channel, and MSNBC's switch to a politically progressive talk lineup at night has also left CNN behind.

The timing, however, is odd. Klein just remade CNN's prime-time lineup with an 8 p.m. ET show starring former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, which debuts next week, and announced that Piers Morgan would take over a prime-time interview show from Larry King, who is retiring.

Zucker presided over the downfall of the flagship NBC's prime-time lineup from its 1990s dominance in the "Friends" era to where it has been the fourth-place broadcast network. Yet NBC News has remained the strongest broadcast news division and the network continues to dominate in late-night programming.

NBC Universal has done well financially with its owned networks; Zucker has said that NBC Universal is essentially a cable company now. NBC Universal owns the NBC and Telemundo television networks along with 26 TV stations; cable channels USA, Bravo, Oxygen, Syfy, CNBC and others; the Universal Pictures movie studio and Focus Features; theme parks in California, Florida and Japan; and has part ownership of online video site Hulu.

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NBC's experiment last season putting Jay Leno in prime time proved a spectacular failure, blowing up further when Conan O'Brien refused to move to a later time slot to accommodate Leno's return to the "Tonight" show.

Zucker was an NBC wunderkind who started at the company in 1986 as a researcher for its Olympics coverage. He moved to the "Today" show and became its executive producer before the age of 30. The show dominated in the ratings behind Katie Couric, Bryant Gumbel, then Matt Lauer, becoming hugely profitable for the company.

In an unexpected move, Zucker was sent to Hollywood to oversee NBC's entertainment division. He alienated many in California with his efforts to cut costs, but he remained a favorite of G.E. executives, who continued to move him up the company's corporate ladder.

Zucker, in his e-mail, recalled the first day coming to work at NBC in August 1986. "It was humid and my shirt was soaking by the time I got there," he said. Zucker survived two bouts of cancer while at the "Today" show.

"Sure, there have been ups and downs in the last quarter-century," he said in his e-mail. "But when I step back and think about what we've been through, I feel nothing but pride and joy. It has been a great run and I've been incredibly fortunate."

Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast, said Zucker has "led the company with integrity and purpose.

"The success of NBC Universal puts us in a wonderful position as we plan our joint venture with GE," Roberts said. "We wish Jeff well in his future endeavors."

Comcast has been tightlipped in its plans for NBC Universal when it takes over. One name that has surfaced as a potential new executive there is Robert Greenblatt, the successful programming chief at Showtime who stepped down when his contract ended this summer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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