Ex-NBC executive Jeff Zucker announced as head of CNN Worldwide, vows to broaden definition of news
Soledad O’Brien better be on her best behavior now.
That was the joke which flew through my head briefly during the sometimes awkward press conference held Thursday to announce former NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker would be taking over at president of CNN Worldwide in early 2013.
A Homestead, Fla. native, Zucker, 47, comes with expertise and a bit of baggage.
Known early on as a whiz kid in news who sparked ratings victories at the Today show when he was its executive producer in the 1990s, he is also blamed for failing to duplicate hits such as Friends while president of NBC Entertainment and pushing for the costly mistake of briefly replacing Jay Leno with Conan O’Brien on the Tonight Show while running NBC Universal in 2009.
“There’s no doubt I made some mistakes in the entertainment world,” said Zucker, whose most recent job has been serving as executive producer of pal and former today show co-anchor Katie Couric’s new daytime talk show. “And I own those. I feel really excited about being able to return to daily news.”
In other words, this is Zucker’s chance to prove that, though he may not have handled the network TV game particularly well, he can still rebuild his legacy as a brilliant television news executive by turning around CNN.
Much of the conference call announcing Zucker’s new job went this way, as executives tried to look smart and savvy without tipping their hand to competitors or spooking employees (“I think you can appreciate that I’ve been here about an hour,” Zucker told one journalist asking for specifics on his plans.)
But here’s a few examples of what Zucker and his boss, Turner Broadcasting Systems CEO Phil Kent, said on Thursday, followed by what they really meant.
Zucker: “The key is that CNN remain true to its standards of great journalism, but at the same time be vibrant and exciting. Just because you’re not partisan, doesn’t mean you can’t be exciting.”
The meaning: Outside of big news events, CNN scores prime time ratings below right-friendly Fox News and liberal-leaning MSNBC. Some experts say that’s because CNN’s partisan rivals present shows viewers find compelling when there is no huge election or superstorm looming.
Zucker ruled out a partisan approach for CNN, but used the word “vibrant” at least three different times, while Kent called his new hire a “magnet for talent.”
In other words, they need a star who can make CNN’s primetime a destination for passionate fans.
Zucker: “If we allow our competition to be defined only by the partisan cable networks, I think that’s a mistake…(We have to) broaden our definition of what news is.”
The Meaning: CNN earns something like $600 million in profits through a sprawling set of concerns, according to the New York Times; Zucker will oversee 23 different business including CNN U.S., CNN International and HLN. It’s always been frustrating to some there that they are mostly judged by viewers and journalists by domestic U.S. TV ratings, especially in primetime.
This signals a focus on competition outside traditional cable, especially online, and programming which may not fit CNN’s fairly buttoned-down definition of news.
Kent: “It’s an interesting intellectual challenge: what should CNN be doing in the morning hours different than its cable competitors?...That was a thought exercise we never did enough at CNN.”
The Meaning: CNN sometimes scores morning ratings lower than sister network HLN; Zucker, who helped NBC’s Today start a 16-year winning streak in ratings, is now in the building.
Hope O’Brien, who anchors the morning show Starting Point (and once worked for Zucker at NBC), is ready for some suggestions on how to be more vibrant.