Yes, it's true: CNN Worldwide is finally going to shake things up by hiring former NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker as its new president, succeeding former head Jim Walton. Zucker's takeover will begin in January of 2013.
Zucker most recently produced Katie Couric's popular "Today" morning news show at NBC (he's an investor), making him a frontrunner to lead cable channel CNN. But he has his work cut out: third-ranked news network CNN, though a strong global presence, has had diminishing returns over the past decade with its worst ratings in 20 years, as more biased Fox News and MSNBC have lured eyeballs with strong opinions playing to their base.
Zucker will be based in New York, while CNN is headquartered in Atlanta. The man lives and breathes ratings; as CNN's Piers Morgan struggles to build a following, CNN has already been heading toward the mainstream with entertainment shows featuring the likes of documentary travel host Anthony Bourdain and more of what CNN calls Non-Fiction TV.
Here are some reactions:
"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, and though shy about specifics, says he hopes to "broaden the definition" of TV news as a way to distance itself 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 new 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."
Zucker’s tenure at NBC was not. . . fantastic. Back during the Conan O’Brien/Late Show debacle, one of the hallmarks of Zucker’s reign, Maureen Dowd wrote a devastating column about the executive, whom she said “could not program [a] network to save his life.” Remember Joey? Exactly. That was Zucker’s idea. Dowd’s sources gleefully compared Zucker to J. Pierrepont Finch and characterized him as “the most destructive media executive ever to exist.” Yikes. But what initially seems like hyperbole soon becomes understatement: Zucker, more than anyone else, is the reason Donald Trump, star of NBC’s Apprentice, is a “thing” right now, in 2012. Trump the television host was Zucker’s idea.
Trying to position itself as the hard news, genuinely fair-and-balanced alternative to Fox News Channel on the right and MSNBC on the left doesn't address the advantage those channels have in possessing showy personalities (Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell) who can bring viewers back for extended stretches, in much the way talkradio does.
CNN, by contrast, more closely mirrors newsradio, where listeners tune in to check news, weather or traffic and scatter just as quickly. It's a valuable role when there's a major breaking-news event -- and CNN's international presence still dwarfs competitors -- but not so swell on run-of-the-mill news days, forcing the channel to engage in a level of hyperbole that does nothing to buttress its credibility.