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.
Zucker 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.
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.
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, 45, 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.
Associated Press Business Writers Ryan Nakashima and Michael Liedtke contributed to this report.