Atlanta-based CNN today named former NBCUniversal president Jeff Zucker as president of the worldwide network, replacing Jim Walton.
Zucker will take over in January and report to CEO Phil Kent.
The New York Times broke the story of Zucker’s arrival on Tuesday. His name was posed as a likely candidate in the Times after Walton announced his pending departure in July.
Zucker, who will remain in New York and not be based in Atlanta, built up NBC’s “The Today Show” as executive producer in the 1990s when Katie Couric was a co host. He was president of NBC Entertainment in 2000, then moved up the ranks, eventually taking over for all of NBCUniversal in 2007.
Although the basic cable networks owned by NBCUniversal such as Bravo, Syfy and USA thrived under his watch (as well as MSNBC), the broadcast network suffered an ignominious fall in the prime-time ratings. The clumsy handling of the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien situation sealed his fate. He left NBC in 2010. More recently, he has worked closely to produce Couric’s new talk show, which debuted this fall.
Zucker will be taking over an operation in flux. Walton was able to turn CNN into an impressively profitable worldwide operation, with its digital and international operations growing rapidly. But the primary TV network has struggled in the ratings this year as consumers of straightforward hard news have moved elsewhere. Ratings in the spring dropped to their lowest point in at least two decades and the station frequently falls far behind more partisan cable news networks MSNBC and leader Fox News.
“Just because you aren’t partisan doesn’t mean you can’t be exciting,” Zucker said during a press conference. “We need more passion and fans. That shouldn’t be mistaken for partisanship.”
‘CNN does not have an identity problem,” Kent added. “We’ve had execution problems.”
Zucker wasn’t ready to offer specific critiques of current CNN talent. “That would be unfair,” he said, noting he just joined the team.
Bill Carroll, a TV analyst for Katz Media Group, which provides services to TV and radio stations, said CNN needs a leader who has both news and entertainment experience. Zucker fits that bill.
Zucker’s boldest move ultimately led to his departure from NBC: a decision to give Leno in 2009 the 10 p.m prime-time slot five days a week. This was seen as a budgetary move to save money since Leno is far cheaper to operate than prime-time dramas. But it was also seen by the creative Hollywood community as a slap in the face, a surrender of valuable 10 p.m. real estate. The backlash was severe. What’s worse, Leno didn’t help NBC’s fortunes in prime time and undermined O’Brien’s presence at 11:35 p.m. on “The Tonight Show.”
Zucker decided to give Leno his 11:35 p.m. slot again and pushed O’Brien back to 12:05 a.m. O’Brien recoiled and left for TBS. Leno got his “Tonight Show” slot back in 2010, but his name was tarnished and his ratings have never quite recovered.
“If that move had worked, Zucker would have been seen as a visionary,” Carroll said. “It would have set the standard for broadcast TV at 10 p.m. It didn’t pan out.” He did give kudos for Zucker growing the basic cable side.
But he said Zucker has his work cut out for him with CNN. “It’s hard to turn a cruise ship in the middle of a river,” he said.
TV critics who have followed Zucker over the years are not exactly huge fans. Take Tim Goodman of Hollywood Reporter, who opened his column today with the lines: “Holy hell, Jeff Zucker just can’t be kept down, can he? There might not be an executive who has failed upward so swiftly in decades.”
CNN’s overall brand reliance on being an even-handed news source clashes with efforts to bring in regular viewers with entertaining personalities. It has made small moves with the recent hirings of Anthony Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock on weekends starting in 2013.
“There’s no doubt I made mistakes in the entertainment world,” Zucker said. “I own those. I feel real excited to return to daily news both on television and in digital.”
As for the digital side, Zucker added, “we have to continue to leverage that digital strength and better integrate it with other platforms.”
CNN TV’s long-time problem has always been that it’s a draw for breaking news but not so much when it’s relatively quiet. Zucker said the competition isn’t just MSNBC and Fox News, but other basic cable networks. He didn’t say any specific networks but they are presumably those which chase similar audiences such as Discovery, History Channel and A&E with their slate of popular infotainment shows such as “Pawn Stars” and “Duck Dynasty.”
Kent noted that CNN has tried programs about sports, fashion and technology. “There are a lot of subject matters we don’t address as much,” Kent said.
“News is more than just politics and war,” Zucker said. “We’re not going to stray from the journalism that is the hallmark of CNN and the breaking news that CNN has owned for 32 years. But at the same time, we live in a world where nonfiction programming comes in many forms.”
Zucker’s work with Couric has bolstered his reputation in handling talent. Insiders hope he will be able to improve CNN’s ability to work with its existing pool of personalities and anchors.
UPDATE: A source told me CNN president Tom Johnson in 1997 actually gave Zucker the CNN-US presidency job in 1997 but Zucker was diagnosed with colon cancer at the time so Johnson hired Rick Kaplan instead.