* Zucker takes over ratings-starved news network in January
* Zucker says CNN will remain nonpartisan but broaden
definition of news
* Zucker's entertainment track record "irrelevant" -TBS
By Peter Lauria and Liana B. Baker
Nov 29 Jeff Zucker, the newly appointed
president of CNN Worldwide, pledged on Thursday to maintain the
cable news network's nonpartisan programming but said it needed
to broaden its coverage beyond politics and war.
Zucker, the former chief executive at NBC Universal, was
named president of CNN Worldwide, beginning in January.
Zucker, who will leave his producing role on Katie Couric's
syndicated television talk show, will succeed Jim Walton, and
report to Phil Kent, chairman and chief executive of CNN parent
Turner Broadcasting System. He will be based in New York, even
though CNN's headquarters are in Atlanta where Turner is based.
Kent said he led a "very deliberate search process" and
sought an executive with management experience in television and
cable who also "could be a magnet for talent."
Other potential candidates mentioned in the press included
Mark Shapiro, the former CEO of Dick Clark productions and NBC
News chief Steve Capus.
"I compare it to Yahoo putting Marissa Mayer in charge; it's
a big name running a company that has a little bit of a
tarnished brand name," said Horizon media analyst Brad Adgate.
Zucker, 47, is known to be smart and self-deprecating but
also hyper-competitive and harsh. A former editor of the Harvard
Crimson, he spent his entire career at NBC, rising from
executive producer of the "Today" show at age 26 to CEO at 41.
He left NBC in 2010 after its purchase by Comcast Corp
Going from being chief executive of a major media
conglomerate where employees reported to him to head of CNN,
where he will report to both Kent and Time Warner CEO
Jeff Bewkes may appear to be a step backward, but Zucker doesn't
see it that way.
"Everybody works for somebody," Zucker said, noting that he
reported to General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt while at
NBC. "Working for Phil is not a problem in any way for me."
BROADER DEFINITION OF NEWS
Since its beginnings as the first 24-hour cable news
network, CNN has committed to a nonpartisan approach to its
programming, a position that some have described as a "view from
nowhere" and blamed for the network's ratings erosion.
CNN has lagged Fox and MSNBC in prime-time viewership for
more than a year, drawing fewer than 1 million U.S. prime-time
viewers compared with about 2.7 million for Fox and about 1.5
million viewers for MSNBC, according to ratings data. CNN's
prime-time ratings hit a 21-year low during the second quarter
of this year.
While acknowledging the competition, Zucker called partisan
politics "loud" and said CNN wouldn't sway to any side of the
"CNN stands for journalism, unlike almost anyone else," he
said. "We've got to remain true to the journalistic values that
have always been the hallmark at CNN, and at the same time,
continue to broaden the definition of what news is."
Zucker, who has survived two bouts of colon cancer, himself
follows politics with the same fervor with which he plays
tennis. He often spends his leisure hours at the tennis court,
and was rumored to be eyeing political office after leaving NBC.
He gained a reputation as a news-producing whiz working with
Couric on NBC's "Today" show. Under Zucker's leadership, "Today"
became the most-watched morning news show and the most
profitable program on television. After being named CEO of NBC
Universal, he remained involved in programming decisions as well
as the strategic direction of NBC News and the MSNBC and CNBC
cable channels, sources said.
CNN is still capable of being the go-to network for major
breaking news stories. The network scored a ratings win on the
night of the U.S. presidential election in November, luring 8.8
million viewers, ahead of Fox News Channel by about 1 million.
Kent said CNN was coming off a strong 30 days spurred by a
"trifecta" of events - Hurricane Sandy, the presidential
election and the situation in Israel and Gaza - but that it also
needed viewers to check in with it daily.
"Ratings are not the only thing that we're concerned about
here... what is the most important thing in our business is to
be essential every day to someone," Kent said.
Still, CNN has at least one advantage over its cable news
competitors: It attracts a much bigger digital audience. In
October, CNN boasted 68 million unique online visitors. That
topped 56 million for NBC News Digital and 35 million for the
Fox News Digital Network, according to CNN.
As president, Zucker, who once said networks cannot trade
analog dollars for digital dimes, can try to move CNN's digital
audience upstream to the network and leverage its Web reach for
both ratings and financial gain.
CNN has struggled to find a programming identity in recent
years. Two years ago, it paired former New York Governor Eliot
Spitzer with pundit Kathleen Parker for a talk show that failed
in the ratings.
It also released talk show host Larry King - perhaps its
best-known personality - after more than two decades as ratings
dwindled, and replaced him with British journalist Piers Morgan.
More recently, the network created a prime-time show for its
most youth-oriented host, Anderson Cooper, and enlisted popular
chef Anthony Bourdain for a travel and food-related show.
Though CNN remains profitable, Bewkes said on Time Warner's
earnings call in August that he was unsatisfied with the
network's low ratings.
Zucker said he had ideas on how to tweak CNN's programming,
but offered up generalities such as thinking "bigger and
broader," "trying new things," and "executing better."
"It's unfair to talk specifics about anybody or any show,"
he said, citing his being at CNN "only an hour."
Kent, however, proposed an area he'd like Zucker to focus on
at least initially--the morning daypart.
"What should CNN be doing in the morning, that's where I
think Jeff will start," Kent said. "That's a thought exercise we
never really did any of."
Taken together, those comments combined with the emphasis on
recruiting talent, suggest that CNN's programming lineup and
talent roster is likely to look a lot different from now.
"If Zucker can hire some exciting new people from unusual
sources, then I think that CNN has a chance," said Paul
Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at
Added Jeff Gaspin, who worked as chairman of NBC
Entertainment under Zucker, "News talent in front of and behind
the camera respect him, and his instincts for the news business
NEWS ISN'T ENTERTAINMENT
While Zucker's news chops are respected, his tenure at NBC
is often defined by the network's failures in prime time, as his
rise to CEO coincided with NBC's fall from its top spot on the
Kent leapt to Zucker's defense when questioned about his
entertainment programming track record.
"Whether Jeff Zucker was the greatest head of the NBC
Entertainment businesses or not was irrelevant to my search,"
For his part, Zucker admitted Thursday that "there's no
doubt that I made mistakes in the entertainment world and I own
Included among those mistakes would be approving such shows
as "Joey" and "Emeril," moving Jay Leno to prime time only to
move him back to late night in an ugly dispute that forced Conan
O'Brien off the network and firing programming head Kevin Reilly
in favor of Ben Silverman only to get rid of him two years
In an ironic twist, Zucker is now reunited under the same
corporate umbrella as O'Brien, who took his show to Turner's TBS
But Zucker does get credit for expanding NBC's portfolio in
the lucrative cable television business by acquiring Oxygen and
The Weather Channel and bringing a financial acumen to the media
business--he almost always hit his GE-mandated numbers at NBC.
That keen awareness of the bottom line is not to be
dismissed. Given the sharp cost cuts experienced by the
television news business in recent years, CNN has frequently
been rumored as a merger partner for CBS Corp and other
But a deal doesn't appear to be in CNN's near future. Kent
dismissed the possibility outright on the call, saying it was
nowhere on the radar screen.