CNN names Jeff Zucker as new chief
Posted November 29, 2012
Time Warner has turned to Jeff Zucker, who led NBC's Today to new heights but couldn't revive the network's prime-time fortunes, as the new leader of CNN Worldwide.
Zucker, currently executive producer of Katie Couric's new daytime talk show, will start in mid-January, replacing Jim Walton, who is retiring after a 30-year career there, saying the network needs "new thinking."
CNN is the most widely distributed cable-news network - its programming is seen in 200 countries - and remains highly profitable. But its flagship U.S. operation has been in a ratings tailspin.
As Fox News, and then MSNBC, became highly partisan in their approach, particularly in prime-time talk shows, CNN steadfastly maintained a down-the-middle philosophy. While it attracts sizable audiences for major breaking-news events, sometimes leading rivals, more often it has slid to a distant third place, and occasionally even behind its own smaller sibling HLN, formerly known as CNN Headline News.
"You can look at CNN's problem in two ways," says Andrew Tyndall, a TV-news analyst who runs The Tyndall Report. "Either it's lost its way as a TV channel that doesn't know how to attract audiences, or it's lost its way as a journalistic enterprise. In the minds of Time Warner, by hiring Zucker they're saying it's a television problem, not a journalism problem."
And Tyndall contends that CNN's attempts to solve its woes by "defining itself negatively - 'we're not like them' - is diminishing and bland." The question, he says, is, "How can you have a strong personality and gravitas at the same time without being ideological?"
Zucker believes CNN can, He wouldn't comment on the network's existing lineup of anchors, and though shy about specifics of his own plans, he hopes to "broaden the definition" of TV news as a way to further distance CNN from the bickering seen on other news channels. "News is more than just about politics or war," he says, suggesting he plans to extend the channel's focus to other "non-fiction" programming. (CNN already has plans to add a show with chef Anthony Bourdain.)
"Just because you're not partisan does not mean you can't be exciting," he says. "We're not going to stray from journalism that's the hallmark of CNN. But at the same time, we're in a world where non-fiction programming comes in many forms."
And his boss, Turner Broadcasting chief Phil Kent, says, "CNN does not have an identity problem," but has merely struggled putting it in practice on the air. He says that while ratings improvement is a goal, "they're not the only thing we're concerned about here. Most important in cable is to be essential every day to some core pocket of fans."
Still, those fans are fewer: This year, despite coverage of the elections and a devastating storm, CNN has averaged 412,000 viewers at any given time of day, down 16% from last year. That compares with 498,000 for MSNBC (which is up 14%) and 1.2 million for Fox News, which rose 8%.
Zucker, 47, had a long career with NBC. After graduating Harvard, he became a researcher for the network's Olympics unit, then moved to Today, where at 26 he became the show's youngest executive producer in 1992. Shortly thereafter, the highly profitable show began a 16-year winning streak and gradually expanded to four hours.
Zucker climbed the NBC ranks as well: He was named to lead its entertainment programming in 2000 and added responsibility for its money-making cable networks.
But even as NBC began a steady slide to fourth place under his watch, when he couldn't replace hits such as Friends and ER, he was promoted again to run NBC Universal, comprising TV, a movie studio and theme parks, in 2007.
Less than four years later, he was forced out when cable giant Comcast took control of NBC Universal and installed its own managers. For the past year, Zucker has worked with former Today colleague Couric on a daytime talk show that premiered in September. He will transition out of that role in the next few weeks.
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