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My advice to new CNN head Jeff Zucker: Get a lot crazier than subbing Erin Burnett for Soledad O'Brien



obrien.soledad.jpgJust about every TV critic worth their DVR player has written a column -- or two! -- on how to save CNN, the most traditional of the major cable television newschannels, now mired in some of the lowest ratings they have ever seen.

CNN's confirmation late last month that former NBC executive Jeff Zucker would take over as president of CNN Worldwide early next year kicked off a flurry of new pieces, including a plea to be less boring and the New York Post's reporting today that Zucker may already be looking to replace morning anchor Soledad O'Brien with 7 p.m. anchor Erin Burnett.

Leave aside the fact that this is the same newspaper which put a photo of a man about to be killed by a subway train on its front page with the worst headline imaginable. Or that the switch would take an anchor who has yet to make a dent at 7 p.m. and move her into one of the most competitive timeslots on the channel. Or that the move would also make CNN's already diversity-challenged anchor lineup look even whiter.

The big reason this move seems to make no sense is that it truly is re-arranging deck chairs on a sinking ship, repositioning CNN anchors who regular cable viewers have already voted on.

erin-burnett.jpgI offered a prescription for fixing CNN back in August on NPR that I haven't yet posted in this space. It's based on the idea that the channel needs something unpredictable, something game changing and something which looks nothing like what they're doing now.

For me, CNN's biggest problem is that they are shackled to a buttoned-down, risk-averse style that serves their international interests well, but makes for boring TV day-to-day in the U.S.A.

They often present stuff that's just as dumb as their competitors, but with half the flash or attention-getting appeal.

keith-olbermann-and-globe.jpgMy advice is CNN needs to risk looking dumb or worse while it searches for a new vice in the 21st century. And the strongest argument why comes from an unlikely source: rival MSNBC.

Hard to remember now, but MSNBC was once afraid to embrace liberalism as a counter-weight to Fox News, booting liberal firebrand Phil Donahue off their air when he opposed war in Iraq after 9/11 and becoming a pale shadow of Fox by hiring people such as Joe Scarborough, Michael Savage and Jesse Ventura.

Eventually, when Keith Olbermann began airing his Special Comments commentaries and made Countdown less a roster of can-you-believe-it news stories to focus on politics, MSNBC found a liberal voice which was also advertiser-friendly, reproduceable, unpredictable and most importantly, a viewer magnet. 

But to get there, MSNBC spent years as a punching bag for anyone with a remote and a word processor. Seems to me, CNN needs to turn its 10 p.m. timeslot into an incubator for similar experiments, before the hole gets so deep there's no coming back.

We'll see if the guy who gave Today its window on the world and super-sized Friends is up to the task.

Check out my commentary from NPR below:



[Last modified: Monday, December 10, 2012 3:16pm]


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