Jeff Zucker on CNN’s plan for more reality shows, original series and documentaries

Jeff Zucker, CNN president (Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)
Jeff Zucker, CNN president (Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

Rest easy, everyone. CNN won’t be resurrecting “Real Housewives of D.C.”

Yes, that was an actual question (though posed somewhat jokingly) that CNN president Jeff Zucker answered at the Realscreen Summit in Washington on Monday. But the query wasn’t too off the mark, as Zucker kicked off the annual reality TV and non-fiction programming conference with a rare public discussion about CNN’s new strategy: To aggressively tap into the unscripted show genre, while also producing original films and documentaries.

So get used to seeing docu-series such as “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” or “Morgan Spurlock: Inside Man” popping up in between political and international coverage. Shows like that aren’t going away – they will increase over the next few years, as both shows are currently the first and third most-watched programs on the network, respectively.

However, Zucker (who joined the network last year) emphasized repeatedly, this doesn’t mean that the cable news network is suddenly moving away from, well, news.

“Some folks want to say, ‘Oh, I can’t believe they would put that on CNN,’ or that ‘Maybe they’re not as committed to the news business,’” Zucker told the hundreds of TV executives, producers and advertisers at the Washington Hilton. “No. The fact is, one, we are more committed than ever to the news business, and two, the audience is more than willing to come to CNN for this kind of programming.”

During his keynote address moderated by CNN “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter, Zucker said that in these days of overwhelming options for news, relying solely on news programming is “probably not a long-term game.” He hopes to attract the kind of “smart, engaging” shows that would air on networks including Discovery and National Geographic Channel.

But while original series are bringing in the viewers to a network that sorely needs them (CNN typically lags behind Fox News Channel and MSNBC), Zucker promised that breaking news would always take precedent over original programs – and that there’s room on his network for both.

“Listen, we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “We’re not going to lessen in any way our commitment to news, our coverage of news, our coverage of breaking news. In no way are we going to walk away from any of that.”

And, he added, important stories would always come first. For example, the day that Nelson Mandela died, the network was scheduled to air “An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story,” about the Texas man wrongly convicted of killing his wife. Once the Mandela story broke, the network quickly pulled the documentary off the schedule for nonstop Mandela coverage.

Zucker also talked up the value of “knowledge-based” reality shows being helpful for viewers, such as Bourdain’s show, in which the chef goes around the world and uses food, travel and people to tell stories. Talking about Bourdain’s episode in Israel, Zucker said, “I learn more about what is going on in Israel than I often do from most of our reporting that comes out of there.”

Though, he quickly added, “That’s not to belittle our news coverage, which is excellent. But it’s a different type of storytelling that is incredibly informative, and incredibly – shall I say – entertaining, and I learn from it. And I think that’s really the secret of what we’re trying to do.”

Emily Yahr covers pop culture and entertainment for the Post. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyYahr.
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