* Source says Zucker to be named CNN president next week
* CNN ratings hit 21-year low in Q2
* Rivals' popularity rises with more opinion, commentary
By Peter Lauria and Lisa Richwine
Nov 27 Jeff Zucker, a former head of
NBCUniversal and the producer of Katie Couric's talk show, will
be named president of Time Warner Inc's ratings-starved
CNN cable news channel, a source close to the situation said on
Zucker will succeed departing CNN Worldwide President Jim
Walton, who said in July he was leaving the once-dominant news
network after nine years in the job amid a recent ratings slump.
The appointment of Zucker as the new president of CNN
Worldwide will be announced by the end of next week, the source
said. Zucker could not immediately be reached on Tuesday. A Time
Warner spokesman had no comment.
Zucker gained a reputation as a news-producing whiz when he
worked with Couric on NBC's "Today" show.
Now he will face the challenge of turning around CNN, the
channel that pioneered around-the-clock cable news coverage when
it was launched in 1980 by founder Ted Turner, but then saw its
primetime ratings hit a 21-year low in this year's second
Since its beginnings, CNN has tried to hold the middle
ground in its news coverage, a position that some blame for its
ratings erosion. As CNN's viewership declined, ratings increased
for rivals Fox News and MSNBC, which blend news with opinion and
CNN "is a very large stage, and a lot needs to be done to
fix it," the source told Reuters. Zucker "has been itching to
get back in the game, and this is the best opportunity out there
News Corp owns Fox, while MSNBC is now owned by
cable giant Comcast Corp after its purchase of NBC two
years ago that led to Zucker's ouster from NBCUniversal. The
opinion programs on No. 1 cable news network Fox News skew
conservative, while commentaries on MSNBC lean liberal.
Some industry experts argue that CNN needs to move out of
the middle to regain lost ground.
"You never want to be stuck between two strong competitors,
as they will divide the market and starve you out," said Adam
Armbruster, a media industry consultant with Eckstein, Summers,
Armbruster & Co.
Zucker "needs to bring his trademark 'star power' to the
network and make them relevant and create regular viewers even
when no big news story is breaking," Armbruster said.
CNN has lagged Fox News Channel and MSNBC in primetime
viewers for more than a year. On a normal news night, CNN draws
fewer than 1 million U.S. viewers in prime time, compared to
about 2.7 million for Fox News Channel and about 1.5 million
viewers for MSNBC, according to ratings data.
Though CNN remains profitable, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes
said in August he was unsatisfied with CNN's low ratings and
would seek to turn around the network with programming that was
more compelling but remained non-partisan.
The network has struggled to find a programming identity in
recent years, but not for lack of trying. It paired former New
York Governor Eliot Spitzer with pundit Kathleen Parker for a
talk show that failed miserably. It released perhaps its most
notable personality in Larry King after more than two decades
and replaced him with Piers Morgan. More recently, the network
created a primetime show for its most youth-oriented host,
Anderson Cooper, and enlisted popular chef Anthony Bourdain for
a travel and food-related show.
CNN claimed a cable news ratings victory on the night of the
U.S. presidential election in November. The network said it
attracted 8.8 million total viewers, beating Fox News Channel by
about 1 million.
CNN does have one advantage over its cable news competitors
in that it attracts a much bigger digital audience. In October,
CNN boasted 68 million unique online visitors. That topped the
56 million for NBC News Digital and the 35 million for the Fox
News Digital Network, according to CNN.
As president, Zucker, who famously said that networks can't
trade analog dollars for digital dimes, can attempt to upstream
CNN's digital audience to the network and leverage its web reach
for both ratings and financial gain.
During Zucker's tenure at NBC, he was intimately involved in
the decision to move MSNBC hard left to counter Fox News, though
that does not mean he will move CNN to the left, the source
close to the situation said.
He also remained involved in decisions about programming and
strategic direction of NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC after he was
named CEO of NBCUniversal, said the source.
While Zucker's news chops have never been questioned, his
tenure at NBC is often defined by the network's failures in
primetime, as his rise to CEO coincided with NBC's fall from its
top spot on the ratings perch. It has resided in the primetime
ratings basement among the big four TV networks for the better
part of a decade. This year, however, NBC has experienced a bit
of a resurgence in primetime and ranks first once again among
viewers 18-49 years old.
Zucker was known for having little patience or interest in
Hollywood or the delicate personalities that inhabit it, as
evidenced by his handling of the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien late
night switch, in which he threatened to "ice," or prevent
O'Brien from working, for two years at one point during the
standoff. He had a similarly unsentimental approach with
executives, firing NBC Entertainment boss Kevin Reilly
unexpectedly to bring in Ben Silverman, only to fire Silverman
two years later.
But Zucker's reputation in the news business should help him
attract strong talent to CNN, said one former industry executive
who has worked with Zucker. "He has so much credibility in the
news space. News people will want to work for him," the source