New CNN chief Jeff Zucker wants more passion, vitality from network
New CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker said his priority is to make the cable news channel “relevant, vibrant and exciting.”
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Zucker stressed that he did not want to copy Fox News and MSNBC, which have found success with a mix of news programming during the day and opinion and commentary shows in prime time.
“I think the most important thing is that CNN continue to remain editorially independent,” he said, adding that the network shouldn’t think of its competition as only Fox News and MSNBC. “I think that is a mistake,” he said.
Zucker, who is to succeed Jim Walton starting in January, hinted that he would like to see CNN broaden its programming as a way to attract more viewers and strengthen its brand.
“News is not just about politics and war,” he said. “The definition of news is broader than perhaps has been historically thought about here.”
A former executive producer of NBC’s highly successful morning program “Today,” Zucker rose through the ranks of that network and eventually became chief executive of parent NBCUniversal.
However, several stumbles along the way tarnished his reputation. NBC’s prime-time ratings fell on his watch, and several moves to try to revitalize the network failed, including an ill-fated move of Jay Leno from late night to prime time. He left NBCUniversal after cable giant Comcast Corp. took a majority stake in the company.
He is currently producing former “Today” anchor Katie Couric’s daytime show but will leave that position in the next few weeks.
Zucker acknowledged that his run at the top of NBCUniversal hit some rough patches. “There is no doubt I made mistakes in the entertainment world, and I own those,” Zucker said, adding that his comfort zone has always been daily journalism.
Pointing to the success Zucker has had as a news executive, Turner Broadcasting Chairman Phil Kent, to whom CNN’s new chief will report, said, “it’s pretty easy to figure out why I wanted him to do this job.”
Though CNN is a worldwide brand with outlets around the globe, and a cash cow for Turner parent Time Warner Inc., it is often defined by its performance in the United States, where it has struggled for the past decade. The network is currently averaging about 700,000 viewers in prime time while Fox News has an average audience of almost 2.1 million. MSNBC averages about 900,000 viewers.
When Walton announced his resignation, he acknowledged in an email to his staff, “CNN needs new thinking” and “that starts with 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.”
Though Zucker said he doesn’t want CNN to become a partisan channel, he did not rule out a return to shows such as “Crossfire” and “Capitol Gang,” which featured commentary on the news. The trick, he said, is to find new ways to reinvent those sorts of political chat shows.
“Television needs to be compelling,” he said.
Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.
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