CNN and Jeff Zucker are betting on each other to revitalize their tarnished brands.
The cable news network, which has struggled to keep pace with rivals Fox News and MSNBC, has tapped Zucker, a onetime wunderkind news producer who later stumbled as chief executive of NBCUniversal, to be president of its worldwide operations.
In his new role, Zucker, 47, will oversee a sprawling news operation with 4,000 employees and channels around the globe that is expected to generate a record $600 million in profit this year for Turner Broadcasting, the Time Warner Inc. unit that houses CNN.
For all of CNN’s financial success and international prowess, CNN’s performance in the United States has been lackluster and its former dominance as a news channel has been ceded to its competitors.
Founded in 1980 by media mogul Ted Turner, CNN pioneered the 24/7 news cycle and became the envy of traditional broadcast news operations with its ability to cover breaking stories at any time from anywhere. But as Fox News and MSNBC loaded their networks with more opinion aimed at the right and the left and developed big stars in Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow, CNN’s audience fell away. CNN still is capable of getting a large audience during breaking news stories, but its on-air personalities, including Piers Morgan and Erin Burnett, do not have the firepower to keep viewers tuned in when there isn’t a world crisis erupting.
“CNN has lost its luster,” said Christopher Harper, a former ABC News correspondent and journalism professor at Temple University. “It hasn’t adapted to what the audience wants, which is more fireworks.”
Zucker too lost his luster and created plenty of fireworks both as head of entertainment for NBC and later as chief executive of NBC- Universal. Under his watch, ratings for NBC declined sharply and his efforts to rejuvenate its prime-time lineup with a show hosted by Jay Leno blew up and embarrassed the network. He was pushed out after NBCUniversal was taken over by cable company Comcast Corp. last year.
“There is no doubt I made mistakes in the entertainment world, and I own those,” Zucker said, adding that “you only become a better executive and manager if you learn from your mistakes.”
If Zucker succeeds in turning around CNN, he has a shot at reviving his image as a media industry savant.
Turner Broadcasting Chairman Phil Kent, to whom Zucker will report, said Zucker’s rocky run at NBCUniversal was irrelevant for this job.
“I’m very familiar with all of Jeff’s successes and all the things he probably wishes might have turned out better,” Kent said. “I was looking for someone who would be a great leader of a news organization.... It’s pretty easy to figure out why I wanted him to do this job.”
Zucker said he has no desire to echo the approach taken by Fox News and MSNBC, but readily acknowledges that CNN needs to improve how it presents news. His priority: to make the channel more “relevant, vibrant and exciting.”
He also said CNN has to start rethinking the mix of news it covers if it hopes to strengthen its brand and attract a larger and more diverse audience.
“News is not just about politics and war,” he said. “The definition of news is broader than perhaps has been historically thought about here.”
As the youngest-ever executive producer of NBC’s morning show “Today,” a job he took at age 26, Zucker was very successful finding a balance between hard and soft news, and the program had tremendous financial and ratings success under his watch.
“The first hour of the ‘Today’ show when Jeff did it was a fabulous news hour,” said David Bohrman, a former CNN and NBC News executive who is now president of Current TV.
Zucker, who will leave his current job producing former “Today” anchor Katie Couric’s new daytime talk show and start at CNN early next year, declined to talk about any specific changes for CNN until he gets more familiar with the network.
Already there is speculation that he would try to woo Couric to CNN should her talk show fail to get a second season. Zucker would not address what talent in front and behind the camera he would look to hire but did say that besides rejuvenating prime time he’d like to boost CNN’s morning programming, which also lags in third place behind Fox News and MSNBC.
Some question whether Zucker, who is succeeding Jim Walton, who ran CNN for almost a decade, is the right choice. When Walton earlier announced his plans to leave at the end of the year he said CNN “needs new thinking” and a “new leader who brings a different perspective, different experiences and a new plan, one who will build on our great foundation and will commit to seeing it through.”
“He is not a new wave thinker in media as far as we know,” said Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor. “I would not say he cannot provide that, but there is no hint of that so far.”
But Jon Klein, who used to run CNN’s U.S. channel, thinks Zucker has the goods.
“He lives and breathes news, understands television and is an audacious leader,” Klein said. “Jeff will feel like a kid in the candy store.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Born: Miami, Fla.
Education: B.A. in American History, Harvard, 1986
Past jobs: Chief executive of NBCUniversal, 2007-2010; president of NBCUniversal Television Group, 2004-2006; president of NBC Entertainment, 2000-2004
Key career moments: He started at NBC in 1986 as a sports researcher for an upcoming Olympics. In 1992, at age 26, he was made the youngest-ever executive of the “Today” show, a post he held until 2000. He later made the ill-fated decision to shift Jay Leno to prime time, a move that flopped.