Q&A: NBC, ABC Veteran Ted Harbert ‘Off Into the Unknown’ After 40 Seasons on TV

Cynthia Littleton

Ted Harbert has been a fixture in network TV since “Laverne & Shirley” was topping the Nielsen rankings.

The chairman of NBC Broadcasting said Thursday he will step down next month after five years at the Peacock and 12 years at Comcast overall, where he started in 2004 running E! and Style channel, after a previous stint at NBC. He’s closing out an executive career that began at ABC in 1977. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, in announcing Harbert’s exit, praised the exec for his “encyclopedic knowledge of the television business, creative instincts and enthusiasm.” Harbert spoke with Variety’s Cynthia Littleton about his long run at two of the Big Three and what’s next.

Why are you leaving?

I’ve been working on this for a while with Steve. The Emmys on Sunday mark the end of my 40th season in TV. That’s been sticking in my mind for a while. I think it’s a good time to go out. I’ve loved every second of it. I can’t believe the wonderful things I’ve been able to do. I’m grateful to Steve (Burke) for bringing me to New York to run these NBC divisions. It was like the senior year of my education in television.

What’s next? Are you retiring or do you want to keep active in the industry?

I have no idea what form my contribution to TV might take next. I’m most excited about not knowing. I’ve never not known. There was one two-week period after (then NBC chief) Jeff Zucker let me go in 2003 that I didn’t know, and fortunately (Fox’s) Dana Walden and Gary Newman picked me up at Fox as a producer. But other than that I’ve always known what my deal was. Now I need to learn how to off into the unknown.

What were the biggest problems that you dealt with at NBC after Comcast took over in 2011?

The owned television stations were not in good shape. The former management had analyzed the local TV business and decided it was not a good business and therefore stopped investing in it. It showed in the ratings and morale. We hired Valeri Staab out of KGO-TV San Francisco. She gets all the credit. We now have a totally different owned television stations division. We didn’t have much going on in the first-run (syndication) business other than Maury (Povich) and Jerry (Springer). Steve Harvey came along and worked. In our affiliate relations division, we had the very difficult job of getting our affiliates to share their retrans dollars with us. Now almost all of them are on that program.

What’s it been like to work for a broadcast network owned by a cable giant?

Being a broadcast company that is owned by a big cable company doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict some time — you’re not always going to have the same interests. But in the end Brian Roberts will always say to Steve ‘Do the right thing for NBC.’ There is zero big-foot feeling of ’You’ll do this because we’re the owner.’ That’s not how it’s run and I’ve been there at other companies where that is not the case.

What made you pursue a career in TV?

I was 11 years old and I found out (a neighbor) worked in TV helping to pick shows. I said ‘I want that job.’ ABC was my favorite network. I bugged him and bugged him. I went in for an NBC apprenticeship job and didn’t get it. Finally, he calls me in July 1977 and tells me (ABC) has a six-month temporary job in the feature film division. I did coverage on a lot of movie scripts and I did a lot of filing. After six months, I went in sheepishly to the boss, Lou Ehrlich, and said ‘Am I gone?’ He said ‘Aw, shut up and go back to your desk.’ It was the luckiest break that any person could get.

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