Jeff Zucker is remaking CNN. Are viewers tuning in?

Correction: The article incorrectly implied that anchor Ali Velshi was dismissed by the network. Velshi left voluntarily for a position elsewhere. This version has been corrected.


On most nights safe-and-serious CNN finishes fourth in the cable news rankings. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
April 9, 2013

For a few minutes the other night, the hot topic on CNN was . . . bacon. The panel on a new prime-time show called “(Get to) The Point” came out boldly in favor of it.

“I had a double order this morning at breakfast,” confessed Jason Taylor, the pro-football-player-turned-“Dancing With the Stars”-contestant-turned-TV-gabber. “But there’s a restaurant in Miami. . . . You know, they have a great bar. They don’t serve bar nuts. They have bacon.”

“Wow!” responded Margaret Hoover, a fellow panelist.

CNN says “(Get to) The Point,” a mixed-gender knockoff of “The View,” is an experimental program that was swiftly canceled after its four-night tryout last week. So it’s unwise to draw too many firm conclusions. Except for this one: This isn’t the old CNN, says new network chief Jeff Zucker.

The old CNN, which created and defined cable news, has been wheezing and sputtering for years. The old CNN was bypassed in sizzle (and audience ratings) by Fox News Channel and MSNBC long ago. On most nights, safe-and-serious CNN finishes fourth in the cable news rankings, behind even little HLN, a sister network that specializes in lurid trials and whose star is Nancy Grace, cable’s Cruella de Vil.

Hence, “(Get to) The Point,” which is part of the throw-it-against-the-wall strategy that Zucker has employed since arriving at CNN’s Manhattan newsroom in January.

Zucker, 48, has come into his new job like a man rummaging through the contents of a cluttered attic. He has hired, fired and reshuffled anchors and hosts (out: Soledad O’Brien), added new producers and pared CNN’s long list of talking heads (out: Mary Matalin, James Carville, Roland Martin, Bill Bennett). He has whipped a sports show onto the weekend schedule and added a newsy weekday afternoon program, hosted by ABC News defector Jake Tapper.

Coming soon: a food-and-travel program with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain on Sundays and a new morning program for weekdays. The latter will be co-anchored by another big-ticket hire from ABC, Chris Cuomo, and rising star Kate Bolduan (CNN evening host Erin Burnett declined the reassignment to mornings). The early hours are Zucker’s wheelhouse — he made his name as executive producer of NBC’s “Today” show in the 1990s — so his morning makeover will be a closely watched test of CNN’s direction.

These moves haven’t done much yet to goose the network’s woebegone ratings. They have, however, simultaneously invigorated and terrified its employees. Many of them have been used to doing things “the CNN way” — that is, thoughtfully, deliberately . . . and in a manner very likely to drive viewers to Bravo or TLC.

“He’s transformed the energy,” says one of CNN’s Washington journalists, among several who asked not to be named so as not to preempt the new boss. “Zucker,” he adds, “wasn’t brought in to tinker. He was brought in to blow up the place.”

The question pinging through the hallways in CNN’s news offices in New York, Washington and Atlanta is whether Zucker — whose last network gig was a calamity — can really fix the network’s problems.

Zucker has already begun tweaking CNN’s news coverage. In January, while other networks covered political stories, CNN aired Beyoncé’s post-inauguration, pre-Super Bowl news conference live. Much to the chagrin of some of CNN’s old guard, the network went wall to wall in February with the disabled Carnival Cruise ship as it limped back to port. CNN also gave ample airtime in early March to the death of a Florida man who was swallowed by a sinkhole. Stealing a bit of HLN’s mojo, it has sprinkled reports about the trial of accused boyfriend-killer Jodi Arias throughout its newscasts.

Some of the spirit of “(Get to) The Point” pervades CNN’s daily programming. Each weekday afternoon, a panel of young quipsters chews over topics big and small, but mostly small. One of the debates last week was about the merits of new, smaller airline toilets. A few minutes later, anchor Don Lemon, who hosted the gabby panel, segued uneasily into reporting about a possible North Korean missile attack.

Zucker wasn’t available to discuss the lighter, brighter (and perhaps dumber) CNN he seems to be molding; he has declined all media interviews since his arrival. CNN also prohibited any of its senior executives from speaking for the record. The network’s chief spokeswoman, Allison Gollust, initially offered to answer a reporter’s questions on an off-the-record basis; she later had no response to a list of questions.

The most charitable view, from inside and outside CNN, is that Zucker’s remodel is a work in progress.

“I wouldn’t read anything into his first two months,” says Phil Griffin, the president of rival MSNBC. “This is going to take years. They’ve got to figure out what works and what doesn’t. The idea that you can figure it out by April 1st is crazy. Check back on April 1st, 2014, and you’ll know the direction.”

If anyone can relate to Zucker’s challenge, it might be Griffin, a longtime NBC News hand who worked with, and then under, Zucker. A half-dozen years ago, MSNBC was languishing — unfocused, unpredictable, a grab bag of news and blab. Since then, it has stutter-stepped forward, surpassing CNN in overall ratings in 2011 and fighting to within view of the dust cloud kicked up by Fox News, the longtime leader.

The obvious thing about MSNBC was that it embraced a passionately liberal perspective, segmenting the audience from the conservative Fox and the middle-of-the-road CNN. The less-obvious thing, says Griffin, is how it did it: by patiently developing a roster of home-grown, out-of-the box personalities — Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Hayes and Joe Scarborough’s “Morning Joe” crew. All started as guests or contributors, he notes, not as established TV personalities hired for their star power.

In perhaps a veiled message to his old boss, Griffin offers a sports analogy: “When a team buys stars, you never know if the chemistry is right for the team or the fans. When you grow [from within], you know the chemistry is right.”

Zucker probably doesn’t take much advice. Always hyper-competitive, Zucker, the son of a cardiologist father and schoolteacher mother, built himself into a top-ranked prep tennis player while growing up in Miami’s suburbs. In high school, he served as president of his sophomore, junior and senior classes (the 5-foot-6 Zucker once ran on the slogan “The little man with the big ideas”).

As a Harvard undergrad, he became the top editor of the school paper, the Crimson; one of his dormitory mates was a student named Conan O’Brien. Zucker first encountered O’Brien, the editor of the rival Lampoon, when O’Brien stole issues of the Crimson as a prank.

Recruited by NBC while in his first year of law school, Zucker began a remarkable sprint through the network’s ranks. He began as a researcher on NBC’s coverage of the 1988 Olympic Games; within five years, he had risen to executive producer of “Today.” Zucker spent the next eight years building on “Today’s” ratings dominance and its status as NBC News’s cash cow. His reward: promotion to network head in 2000. By 2007, he was running NBC’s conglomerate parent, NBCUniversal.

But Zucker’s tenure at NBC was tempestuous, to say the least. The network tumbled from its “must-see TV” golden era to its “Fear Factor” nadir. It went from first in the ratings to fourth, and often fifth place behind Univision’s Spanish-language programs and popular cable fare. In a score-settling book published last year, Warren Littlefield, Zucker’s predecessor, wrote: “The Zuckerization of [NBC] in recent years has been marked by the belief that viewers exist to be manipulated rather than nourished.”

Zucker’s boldest move as NBC’s top executive was to install Jay Leno as the host of a nightly variety show at 10 p.m. and his old classmate, O’Brien, as host of “The Tonight Show.” The host switch lasted seven months in 2009 and early 2010, becoming perhaps the greatest public-relations debacle in TV history. Zucker departed with more than $30 million in severance payments in 2010.

In his new job, Zucker has won plaudits from his troops by refusing the large executive office offered to him at Time Warner’s headquarters just off Central Park. He instead settled in at CNN’s New York newsroom, where he participates in the 9 a.m. story conference on most days.

Reporters who’ve met with Zucker at small breakfast and dinner meetings over the past two months describe him as loose and funny in these sessions, during which he responds to questions and criticism.

“I like him,” said another Washington-based CNN employee, who also declined to be identified due to “the sensitivity of the situation,” as he put it. “It’s clear we need some fresh ideas. It seems to me, he has a great instinct for what people want to watch on TV. I think he knows what makes good water-cooler TV.”

CNN ratings troubles — the audience has dropped 37 percent over the past six years — have long been masked by rising profits generated by Time Warner’s many cable and digital properties. But in recent years, CNN’s inability to attract viewers consistently has begun to make a noticeable dent. The network’s advertising revenue fell 10 percent last year, to an estimated $313.6 million, according to Derek Baine, senior analyst at SNL Kagan, an independent research firm.

That’s a stunning fall in an industry used to solid annual growth. But it’s even more alarming to CNN’s masters at Time Warner because it came in an election year, typically the most profitable for cable news.

CNN still captures a premium from advertisers relative to competitors. Baine estimates that sponsors pay $5.96 to reach a thousand viewers on CNN, compared with $5.02 for a thousand on Fox and $4.19 on MSNBC.

Why? “It’s a safer place to be” for advertisers, says Gabriel Kahn, co-director of the media economics and entre­pre­neur­ship program at USC’s Annenberg journalism school. “It can be a more boring place to be a viewer, but for an advertiser, you’re not going to hear: ‘Obama was born in Indonesia. Let’s go to a commercial!’ ”

That presents Zucker with a thread-the-needle challenge: Get lively, but stay classy and in the middle. Any effort to jerk CNN to the right or the left might win a few more viewers, but it might also scare some advertisers.

“The cardinal rule of Washington is also the cardinal rule of TV: Don’t alienate your base,” says Frank Sesno, a former CNN anchor who is now a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. “But CNN doesn’t have the luxury of staying the same.”

Thus far, Zucker has yet to address CNN’s biggest issue: its prime-time schedule.

With the exception of Larry King’s celebrity-interview show, CNN’s nighttime block has been like that Florida sinkhole, swallowing TV careers. The list of flamed-out hosts — Connie Chung, Paula Zahn, Jeff Greenfield, Aaron Brown, Lou Dobbs, Campbell Brown, Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker — is long and figures to grow. Insiders say the inability to develop a strong slate from 7 to 11 p.m., the most-watched period in TV, encouraged Time Warner to show Jim Walton, Zucker’s predecessor, to the exits last year.

The most vulnerable host these days may be King’s successor, Piers Morgan, whose already anemic ratings at 9 p.m. fell again during the first quarter. Anderson Cooper, perhaps CNN’s signature personality, is a weak fourth among the cable news shows at 8 p.m. People at CNN say his job is in no jeopardy.

Zucker’s first important programming move appears unlikely to break CNN’s doldrums. Tapper’s 4 p.m. program, “The Lead,” debuted in mid-March to ratings that were lower than the program it bumped, “The Situation Room.” They’ve fallen since.

Sesno thinks CNN needs to find a wholly new tone. Hire a few BBC-style interviewers to confront newsmakers, he advises, or even a Jon Stewart-like satirist. And while they’re at it, cover more breaking news and find ways to integrate TV news with digital delivery, including CNN.com, the network’s popular Web site.

Zucker “shouldn’t let the urgent get in the way of the important,” he says. “They need to find a format or formula that is a fundamental departure from the way it’s been done before. Break with tradition! And then stick with it and promote it so people can find you.”

Not so easy, of course.

No, agrees Sesno. The new boss, he says, has a critical patient on the table. And it will take guts and brains, and perhaps a little magic, for the operation to succeed.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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