After months of hand-wringing over CNN’s dismal ratings and cries for new leadership, Turner executives turned to former NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Zucker to turn the network around.
Zucker, named president of CNN Worldwide, faces the Herculean task of invigorating the 24-hour network’s primetime programming lineup amid flagging ratings while maintaining its brand position as the nonpartisan news leader.
After he leaves his current position as producer of former Today colleague Katie Couric’s syndicated daytime talk show, Zucker will be tasked with overseeing a portfolio of 23 news and information businesses including CNN/U.S., CNN International, CNN.com and HLN.
He takes over a news network that over the last few years has struggled on the ratings front — particularly in primetime — against cable news competitors Fox News Channel and MSNBC, both of which have had success offering partisan content from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
CNN continues to draw significant viewership during breaking news and big new events, though. On election night, it topped both Fox News and MSNBC from the first poll closings at 7 p.m. through the 2 a.m. end of President Obama’s victory speech. But overall in November, CNN averaged 1 million primetime viewers, well below Fox News’ 2.5 million watchers and MSNBC’s 1.2 million viewers.
“We are essential multiple weeks and nights a year, when there’s big news stories planned and unplanned,” Turner Broadcasting System chairman and CEO Phil Kent said on a conference call last week. “What is very important is that we be essential every day to some core pocket of fans … that come to it as many nights a week as possible.”
While Zucker maintained that he wants to top both Fox News and MSNBC in the cable-news ratings wars, he said his most important goal is to maintain CNN’s credibility as a nonpartisan outlet for quality news coverage.
“If we allow our competition to be defined only by the partisan political networks, I think that’s a mistake,” he said. “We have to remain true to the journalistic value of CNN and, at the same time, continue to broaden the definition of what news is and understand that our competition is not just Fox and MSNBC.”
Industry observers believe that Zucker will be given some leeway to restructure the network’s primetime programming lineup.
“As an overall international organization, they’re economically successful, so he’s not coming into a situation where the economics can’t support whatever changes he has to make,” Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming at Katz Television Group, said. “But ultimately, his success will be judged on his ability to make CNN competitive in primetime, and that’s the game.”
CNN has already looked to broaden its programming lineup beyond straight news and talk fare. This past summer, it hired independent film producer Morgan Spurlock and former Travel Channel personality Anthony Bourdain to host weekend documentary series in 2013.
Zucker said it was too early to discuss changes to the network’s lineup, but at least one industry insider believes that the network needs more than just an on-air change to turn around its ratings fortunes.
“He [Zucker] needs to come in and roll grenades down the hallway and really change the entire culture,” he said. “The core of journalists hasn’t gone away, so you can do great journalism, but you can’t have people there who are content to be stuck in third place.”
Zucker, who replaces current CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton — who this summer announced he would leave by the end of the year — isn’t a neophyte in the newsroom. He was executive producer of NBC News programming and is credited with building the Today morning program into a ratings juggernaut in the mid 1990s.
But his tenure as NBCUniversal CEO from 2007 to 2011 was tainted by several failed primetime shows and the infamous Jay Leno-to-primetime/Tonight Show succession debacle. When Comcast took control of the company in January 2011, he left and was replaced by then-Comcast Cable president Steve Burke.
Kent defended his choice of Zucker by saying he was looking for a good leader for the company regardless of any pitfalls at NBCU.
“I was looking for a very specific talent that would be a great leader of a news organization,” he said. “Whether Jeff Zucker was the greatest leader of the NBC Entertainment business was irrelevant to my search.”
CNN has called upon former NBCUniversal CEO and Today show boss Jeff Zucker to reverse its flagging ratings.