Jeff Zucker is known as a hands-on executive, a guy who made his bones at NBC News, where his claim to fame was driving the success of the Today show.
With a promotion last week, Zucker's adding NBC's information and news-centric cable networks, CNBC and MSNBC, to his portfolio. He's likely to take an active role in the direction of both cable channels.
"You don't put him in charge so he can read memos," said Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for the Katz Television Group. "If he's in charge of content [for NBC's cable networks], that means he's hands-on. It's now his baby."
CNBC's ratings are down from their zenith, when the market was soaring, but it has high hopes for next year as the Dow Jones Industrial Average rebounds.
CNBC also is embarking on a risky move next January, trying to make its primetime a destination by recruiting Dennis Miller to host a talk show.
Zucker — as NBC Entertainment president before becoming president of the NBC Entertainment, News and Cable Group — provided an entrée to Miller, CNBC president and CEO Pamela Thomas-Graham said.
"We're a team at NBC," Thomas-Graham said. "Jeff was great in making the contact and opening the door for us for Dennis."
CNBC also is slotting Topic A With Tina Brown
into Sunday nights starting in February — its first attempt at building a Sunday destination — and it plans much coverage of how the economy will play into next year's election, and of the Martha Stewart insider-trading trial in January.
Zucker's greatest challenge might be making sure MSNBC finally crafts an identity, and becomes more than a third-place also-ran among all-news networks, behind Fox News Channel and Cable News Network.
Last week's announced lineup has Thomas-Graham reporting to Zucker, not Wright. MSNBC president Erik Sorenson continues to report to NBC News president Neal Shapiro. Shapiro, who had reported to Wright, reports to Zucker, who couldn't be reached for comment last week.
Cable network Bravo has already been under Zucker's purview, and its Queer Eye for the Straight Guy became a hit with the boost of promotion — and plays — on NBC.
"Jeff is now going to work with us and help us achieve some of our other goals," Thomas-Graham said. "We have a lot of great talent at CNBC, and I'm really hoping he's going to help us get more exposure for that great talent at the NBC network, whether it's news or other NBC vehicles."
Sorenson also expressed enthusiasm about MSNBC under Zucker.
"Jeff comes from news, knows all of us," Sorenson said. "There will be zero learning curve for Jeff.
"Jeff obviously has a lot of clout in his job, and to have him supporting us and managing us is a big help."
MSNBC's strategy is to build viewership with a "smart, young, hip" primetime lineup that includes Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, Dan Abrams and a new 9 p.m. interview show to debut in January, Sorenson said. MSNBC has reportedly been talking to Deborah Norville about hosting that show.
Year-to-date, CNBC has been flat in total-day ratings, with a 0.2, and down in primetime, to a 0.2 from a 0.3 — a 33% drop, according to an ABC Cable Networks Group analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.
"Part of it, in fairness, are people are a little put off by the markets right now, given the financial scandals" and stocks' performance, said Jerry McKenna, Cable One Inc.'s vice president of strategic marketing.
McKenna did suggest CNBC might need "to re-look at their programming strategy to say, 'OK, how do we make our product a little more relevant to a semi-business customer?'"
CNBC said Nielsen fails to capture its out-of-home viewership during the day. So the financial-news network commissions a lot of proprietary research about its affluent male daytime audience, Thomas-Graham said. In its 25-to-54 target audience, CNBC rose 12% this year, she said.
MSNBC, a partnership of NBC and Microsoft Corp., has seen primetime ratings rise 25% this year, to a 0.5. In total day, it's flat, with a 0.3.
Ads Sell Well
CNBC outperforms many of competitors in terms of ad sales, according to both Nielsen Monitor-Plus and TNS Media Intelligencer/CMR.
Nielsen said that for the first nine months of this year, CNBC posted $303.1 million in ad revenue, compared with $243.9 million for Fox News; $168.3 million for CNN and $111.4 million for MSNBC. TNS Media has CNN at $307 million, CNBC at $336.7 million and Fox News at $80.1 million.
Fox News puts its own ad revenue for the first nine months at more than $200 million, with $180 million for CNN, $150 million for CNBC and $110 million for MSNBC.
CNN officials said CNBC's numbers benefit from infomercials over the weekend, and that the business-news outlet and MSNBC had the advantage of being bundled with the NBC broadcast network during upfront sales.
"If they [CNBC and MSNBC] didn't have the broadcast-network leverage, they would lose a substantial amount of revenue," according to CNN Ad Sales chief operating officer Greg D'Alba. "I don't believe that they're purchased for the programming value that they give."
Thomas-Graham differed. "Advertisers definitely understand who we deliver to them," she said. "We have a compelling story for them … and our ad-sales figures reflect that."
CNBC and MSNBC are sold however an advertiser wants them, according to one NBC ad-sales insider: individually, together, or packaged with the Peacock.