Ending weeks of speculation, CNN confirmed Thursday that its news president is Jeff Zucker, the guy who so brilliantly climbed the ladder at NBC — which that broadcast network is still recovering from.
Zucker has been hired to be a “magnet for talent” and to broaden the definition of “news” for CNN, which has been in a world of ratings hurt domestically for some time.
He will immediately focus on CNN’s morning lineup. Zucker — who is exec-producing a daytime syndicated talk show starring his former “Today” star, Katie Couric — made his name as executive producer of NBC’s morning show during its glory days.
Zucker, who will begin his new job in January, assumes executive oversight not only of CNN/U.S., but also of CNN International, CNN.com and HLN, among the operation’s 23 branded news and information businesses.
He’s replacing Jim Walton, who announced in July that he would step down at the end of this year after his unsuccessful attempts to stem the flow of viewers from CNN in the United States.
Zucker started his 25-year career with NBC as a researcher for NBC Sports’s coverage of the 1988 Summer Olympics. By the time he left, he was president and chief executive of NBC Universal.
He was named executive producer of “Today” in 1992, a gig he held for eight years — when the show was the most-watched morning-infotainment series and wildly profitable for the network. (Just recently, ABC’s “Good Morning America” ended the show’s 16-year winning streak.)
Based on that success, Zucker began exec-producing “NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw” — also a big success.
Based on his achievements in the news division, NBC named him president of NBC Entertainment — a head-scratcher for industry folks in Los Angeles given that he had no prime-time series development experience. Among his first series orders was “Emeril” — which seemed to confirm their worst fears.
Zucker does get credit for persuading the producers of “Friends” to add about 10 minutes of programming (and a couple of commercial breaks at “Friends” ad rates) to the then-old-but-still-kicking sitcom — introducing the country to “supersized” sitcoms.
On the other hand, he’s also the guy who gave a Thursday time slot to the reality-competition series “The Apprentice,” marking the start of the end of NBC’s Thursday-night lineup as the Holy Grail of scripted TV.
And Zucker’s the guy who famously orchestrated Conan O’Brien’s move to “The Tonight Show” in 2009, simultaneously creating a 10 o’clock weeknight “strip” for Jay Leno — which would be sooo much cheaper than running scripted drama series in that hour every night. And when Leno’s show tanked and Conan’s wasn’t doing well, either — and NBC affiliate TV stations threatened to preempt Leno’s show on a fairly impressive scale — Zucker orchestrated Leno’s move back to 11:30 p.m. That bumped “Tonight” and Conan to a later time slot, prompting Conan to resign rather than let Zucker damage the iconic late-night franchise.
That was pretty epic — people are still talking about it.
Under his tenure, in May 2005, NBC ended a TV season in fourth place in the key age bracket, marking the first time the network had finished dead last in the four-way ratings race. And there NBC had languished until this fall, when it began to claw its way back with Sunday football and “The Voice.”
Yet Zucker shot up through the ranks at NBC — promoted to president of the NBC Entertainment, News & Cable Group, after which he was upped to president and CEO of the NBC Universal Television Group. He announced that he was exiting in September 2010 after Comcast struck a deal to purchase the company.
Naturally, CNN focused on Zucker’s accomplishments at NBC News in a phone conference call Thursday with The Reporters Who Cover Television.
When asked about Zucker’s track record with NBC, Phil Kent, chairman and chief executive of CNN parent Turner Broadcasting, said that he is “very familiar with [Zucker’s] successes and all the things he wishes might have turned out better” but that “whether he was the greatest head of an entertainment business was irrelevant to my search.”
“I was looking for a very specific talent here — someone who would be a great leader of a news organization,” Kent said. And if the reporters on the call look at Zucker’s track record at NBC News, he continued, “it’s pretty easy to figure out why I wanted him to do this job.”
Zucker acknowledged that “in some respects, the best years of my career were spent as a journalist.” He added, “No doubt I made mistakes in the entertainment world and I own those.”
He declined to go into any specifics about his plans to prop up CNN, playing the “I’ve only been here an hour” card.
But Kent indicated that an early focus of Zucker’s gig will be the network’s morning programming.
“Its’ not lost on any of us that, occasionally, HLN’s morning show beats CNN’s morning show,” he said. Zucker is “one of the great innovators in the morning,” which “is not the reason I wanted him, but it’s a great byproduct.”
Zucker also said, several times, that CNN has to broaden its definition of what is news, noting that its competition isn’t just Fox News Channel and MSNBC, but also “anybody that’s competing for eyeballs, and attention, and produces nonfiction programming.”
“News is more than just about politics and war” Zucker said before adding quickly that “nobody does a better job of that than CNN.”
Zucker and Kent talked about improving the consistency of CNN shows in front of the camera and behind.
“CNN does not have an identity problem. . . . We’ve had some execution problems, not only in prime time but in other day parts, as well,” Kent said.
“Jeff’s mission is to get every one of our platforms . . . to execute as well as possible,” Kent said.
A reporter on the conference call asked whether Kent has just said he was going to be executing people in prime time.
Another member of the press on the call asked Zucker to settle the question the reporters were having at that very same moment on Twitter: Will Zucker commute between his home in Manhattan and CNN’s operations in Atlanta by flying first class on commercial planes or on a private jet?
Anticipating your question: Yes, the call had become very strange.
Another reporter told Zucker that his research indicated that there was “an amazing amount of goodwill for CNN in the media business” but that “when you take people out for beers,” they confide that CNN’s content “isn’t that good.”
While we pondered how many thousands of people the reporter’s company required him to have beers with before committing to print his study results, Zucker responded, saying, “The day you stop wanting to improve is the day you should stop” working in the news business.
Yet another reporter asked Zucker to “play along with me here” and name the one on-air talent whom would he most like to recruit for CNN. (Zucker is known for having tried to recruit to NBC the likes of Jon Stewart and Oprah Winfrey — not just Emeril.)
Zucker declined to play.
But he did say he hopes that CNN will, under his watch, become a place “where talent will have huge opportunities and will want to be.”
“The global reach and scale of CNN’s platforms is unparalleled anywhere,” he said.
Stewart, Oprah and Emeril — are you listening?
To read previous columns by Lisa de Moraes, go to washingtonpost.com/