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Jeff Zucker named president of CNN

Jeff Zucker has taken over as president of CNN. CREDIT: AP

Jeff Zucker has taken over as president of CNN. CREDIT: AP

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.

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27 comments Add your comment

Wayne stuck in AL

November 29th, 2012
11:03 am

Considering Zucker’s past, I give it 2 years before he runs CNN completely into the ground and gets even lower ratings than WeTV.

terry

November 29th, 2012
11:24 am

How do these tools keep getting hired? It’s like the NBA where guys have coached unsuccessfully & still get re-hired 5 times or more.
He ran the Democrat Party Press office, oops I misspelled NBC into the tank & I guess now he can sink CNN further into the abyss.

done

November 29th, 2012
11:24 am

So Zucker and Conan are working for same network again? That should work out just fine

Ashley

November 29th, 2012
11:35 am

NBC??? What a joke! It is like CNN is trying ot go out of business. It is sad to watch it die.

[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution [...]

Paula

November 29th, 2012
11:52 am

And the decline of CNN is complete. If Time Warner had any smarts (and they don’t) they would have brought back Ted Turner to try and right the ship.

OTP

November 29th, 2012
12:19 pm

This will likely be the end of CNN. They scraped the bottom of the barrel with him. CNN has not been good since Ted Turner owned and ran it!

Eric

November 29th, 2012
12:29 pm

For any of us that hoped that CNN would follow the CNN International, BBC News, and BBC World News model, that’s out the window. I wonder how long before Mr. Zucker has his hosts giving away prizes when people call into their talk shows? Ugh.

Dum-Bass

November 29th, 2012
12:34 pm

CNN will only get even worse now, not better. This guy is from NBC and will take them even further into the “liberal mud”. Their bias will shine even brighter, and be more obvious! Somebody there has a “deathwish” apparently!

Truth Squad

November 29th, 2012
12:53 pm

My goodness, some of you people are so sad. Must everything be a liberal plot out to get you and ruin everything that is good in the world?

CNN is in last place because facts are sometimes partisan and people understand this. Sticking to the he said-she said model but with bells and whistles is still doing that which earned you far last place. Sometimes it is the Democratic Party’s fault. Sometimes it is the Republican Party’s fault. Other times it is both, or neither, and CNN needs to be able to distinguish between these instances. That is how the stay factual. In other way and they are just inviting people to go elsewhere.

Clearly Time-Warner is at fault here. They are calling the shots instead of letting the person in charge do what is needed to return to the top. They are basically doing to CNN what they did to the Atlanta Braves, Hawks, and Thrashers.

Wayne stuck in AL

November 29th, 2012
1:04 pm

Talk about a guy who “fails upward”!

mark

November 29th, 2012
1:05 pm

The problem is that i honestly don’t want to watch anyone on that station.

Shambrisha

November 29th, 2012
1:15 pm

Aside from his operational successes and failures @ NBC etal Zucker is also a well known unrepentant lib.

If his ideology bleeds over into CNN’s programming, which everyone seems to think has been moving to more middle-of-the-road, they’re doomed. MSNBC already has a firm grip on the hard left audience.

PM

November 29th, 2012
1:21 pm

CNN’s problem is that news is everywhere now. Web, TV, radio, web again, phones, you name it. Information is everywhere and by definition, nowhere specific. There’s little need for a specific go-to news channel on a daily basis, and if Fox and MSNBC didn’t have their partisan side, they’d have NO side at all and no audience.

Fox knows this weakness and stuffs its anchorwomen in as little as possible because lots of eye candy means it does not actually what news is happening. I don’t watch Fox news. But as a man, I often hear male coworkers talking about what the anchorwomen are wearing, or not wearing. They’re watching very closely. So apparently it works. Tune in for the short skirt and boots; stay for the whole hour.

So find the ratings and follow them backward. What does MSNBC do (or not do) to achieve the same result? What does CNN do? Or TWC? CNN can imitate the success or differentiate. Choose one path.

[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) [...]

Tech Man

November 29th, 2012
2:25 pm

PM
November 29th, 2012
1:21 pm

Yea right, you don’t watch…

viewer who sees thru bull

November 29th, 2012
2:35 pm

I had heard that CNN was not biased anymore. So I watched for two weeks as CNN like a lap dog, promoted the white house cover up story of Benghazi. CNN first discovered evidence on the grounds, but quickly moved to cover up the story. They had a special story explaining to the Muslim viewers that a movie deriding Mohammed should not insite riots and that it was not state sponsered. I guess CNN missed the attack took place on 911, and there was nor riot,
only organized terrorists attacking our ambassador and staff. So CNN covered it up until the election was over, and now it’s a sex scandal, and not a failure in policy or failure in backbone to protect Americans. CNN is liberal biased! This guy will just make it more obvious.

sana

November 29th, 2012
2:36 pm

Screw CNN. The only one excited about this is Rodney Ho.

911

November 29th, 2012
3:06 pm

Hot digity, now we can watch Today, Yesterday, and Tomorow. But I’m not waiting for a Zucker-quake at Fox News. More like a Zucker sucker from Kent and Bewkes while trying to determine what to really do about CNN.

Matt

November 29th, 2012
4:09 pm

So here’s a weird sentence. “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 purveyors of straightforward hard news have moved elsewhere.”

I think you mean viewers, not purveyors.

But really, CNN hasn’t provided straight, hard news in forever. CNN International does that, sometimes. Too bad they’re bringing in the guy who thought SyFy was a good idea – a clear hint he doesn’t care about a channel’s direction, and will do anything to chase ratings. So, more of the same for CNN, it looks like.

TG

November 29th, 2012
4:15 pm

Is he one of the few people who Olbermann didn’t fall out with? If so, he would be VERY smart to bring in Keith O, not the Keith O at the end but the one at the beginning of his tenure on MSNBC, he was just a guy who made the news fun. He never really was liberal, but his stance against war criminal Bush had the low-IQ msm painting him that way, then he ran with it.

Other suggestions: Make a show like Chris Hayes’ weekend show. It is slightly slanted, but much more balanced and intellectually stimulating than most other shows on MSDNC. Also, bring in Tavis Smiley and allow him to provide a counter to White House shill Al Sharpton. Smiley is independent in his thinking and is one of the best interviewers out there. Also, the variety show he has on PBS could easily translate to CNN and replace Piers Morgan. Also, snatch Cenk Uguyr away from Current. He is not afraid to call out the establishment. Finally, bring in Glenn Greenwald, maybe the most prolific free thinker around right now, and he too is not afraid to call out the establishment That is what so many people–on both sides of the aisle–are looking for right now, someone who is not a mouthpiece for either party, but a straight shooter.

That is the niche CNN needs to carve out for its primetime programming–the boat rockers, the nonpartisan (not the same as non-ideological) boatrockers.

911

November 29th, 2012
4:51 pm

Face it! What’s really needed at CNN is a news network filled with good ole heterosexual racists. O’Brien, Anderson, and the others just don’t do it for the new generation. Let’s have something we can get our teeth into.

Dum-Bass

November 29th, 2012
5:41 pm

One thing is for sure. CNN can now say they have the “ugliest” president in network news. No doubt about that! I’m beginning to think that is one of the requirements at CNN, even the ladies. The only one who doesn’t fit that mold is Robin Meade and she would be a much better fit at FoxNews. What is wrong with her? Get over there now!

Amelia Island

November 29th, 2012
10:11 pm

Tough crowd here….Gooooo LIBERALS….We won, u lost. Get over it.

Dum-Bass

November 29th, 2012
10:23 pm

It’s not over yet. I read the final chapter in the book, did you? Oh BTW, your side loses, big time!!!!

lori symcox

November 30th, 2012
7:23 pm

Wolf Blitzer openly commented on whether Obama had a “good” day or “bad” day during the campaign; and even went so far as to say, when the Akin scandal broke, that it was a “good” day for the Obama campaign. “We need more of those…” Wolf Blitzer. Really?
I am square in the middle INDEPENDENT, and found the editorializing by the main anchor to be unprofessional. Akin is disgusting. Period…I just want news/”facts”!!! That’s all. I even googled where to find the most unbiased facts about anything. No luck. I’m depressed…
Now that Zucker will be in charge, it will be more “infotainment” and pandering for ratings.
Do we now have to rely on CSPAN for anything clear, transparent, and in real time? If that is actually what we ever get to really see?….

Eric

December 4th, 2012
1:58 am

From the looks of things, we’re living in that day and age of political correctness, as well as irrelevant and sugar-coated news stories, and the “dumbing down” mentality… and it seems that presenting the facts in news stories, and presenting both/multiple sides of a story is labled as a mainstream media “taboo”.

It still remains to be seen if CNN can make a major turn-around under Jeff Zucker. We don’t know if CNN would even want its founder Ted Turner back… or if Turner would even be interested in returning to the house he built.