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'Magnet for talent' Jeff Zucker to head CNN Worldwide

Soledad O'Brien better watch her back now.

That was the joke that flew through my head briefly about halfway through the sometimes awkward press conference held Thursday to announce that former NBC Universal head Jeff Zucker would be taking over as president of CNN Worldwide in early 2013. The Homestead native comes with baggage.

Though credited with sparking 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 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, 47. "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.)

Here are a few examples of what Zucker and his boss, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. chairman/CEO Phil Kent, said, followed by what they may have 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 big news events, CNN scores ratings in prime time below right-friendly Fox News and liberal-leaning MSNBC. Some experts say that's because CNN's partisan rivals attract fans when there is no huge election or superstorm looming. Zucker ruled out a partisanship, 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 new star who can shake up CNN prime time and draw a passionate fan base.

Zucker: "If we allow our competition to be defined only by the partisan cable networks, I think that's a mistake."

The meaning: CNN Worldwide earns something like $600 million in profits, according to the New York Times; Zucker will oversee 23 different businesses including CNN International and HLN. Some executives there want to be judged beyond domestic U.S. TV ratings.

Kent: "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 its 16-year winning streak in ratings, is now in the building.

Hope O'Brien, who anchors the morning show Starting Point, is ready for some suggestions on how to be more vibrant.

'Magnet for talent' Jeff Zucker to head CNN Worldwide 11/29/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 29, 2012 6:17pm]
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