Expectations are high for newly named CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker to rescue the 24-hour news network from its primetime ratings abyss.
After days of industry speculation, Turner Broadcasting System, Inc chairman and CEO Phil Kent Thursday made official the hiring of the former NBC Universal CEO as president of CNN Worldwide, overseeing a portfolio of 23 branded news and information businesses that includes CNN/U.S., CNN International, CNN.com and HLN. Zucker replaces Jim Walton, who is leaving at the end of the year.
Zucker, who will leave his current position as producer of former Today show colleague Katie Couric's syndicated daytime talk show, takes over the news network that over the last few years has struggled on the ratings front -- particularly in primetime – against competitors Fox News Channel and MSNBC. In November, CNN averaged 1 million viewers in primetime, well below Fox News’ 2.5 million watchers and MSNBC’s 1.2 million viewers.
While Zucker admitted on a Thursday morning conference call with reporters 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 news credibility.
“CNN is the global news brand and was there first and does an incredible job in breaking news and stands for journalism, unlike almost anyone else,” he said. “The challenge is how to make that relevant, vibrant and exciting in a world where viewers are getting their info in real time, and adapting and moving the CNN brand both on TV and digital.”
Kent defended his choice of Zucker – who lost his job as CEO of NBCUniversal in 2011 when Comcast acquired control of the company amid some questionable primetime programming decisions -- by saying he was looking for a good leader for the company regardless of any pitfalls at NBCUniversal.
“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 of the NBC Entertainment business was irrelevant to my search.”
Zucker said it was too early to say what changes he may make to the network’s lineup, adding that “I’ve only been here for an hour.” He did say however, that he would not follow the lead of Fox or MSNBC and turn the network into a partisan news service.
“We are not going to lose the standards that are the hallmark of CNN, but at the same time I think we have to think bigger and broader,” he said. “I am incredibly respectful of what CNN is and has been and will continue to be, but also acknowledge that we’re in a position where we can’t say that everything we’ve been doing is working.”