The former NBC exec is trying to recreate his "Today" show magic with "New Day" — and revive the news channel in the process
Jeff Zucker's four-month tenure running CNN has been marred by failed programming experiments and embarrassing reporting gaffes.
But he has one weapon that he’s hoping will turn CNN's fortunes around: The morning news show, called "New Day," that seeks to recreate the success of NBC’s "Today" show when Zucker made it the most-watched, most profitable morning news show on television.
"New Day" will premiere on Monday, June 10 and will be co-hosted by the handsome Chris Cuomo; the whip-smart blonde, "Situation Room's" Kate Bolduan; and a vaguely ethnic news anchor, KTLA’s Michaela Pereira.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? (Calling Matt Lauer, Katie Couric and Ann Curry.)
"I think it's going to take a long time to turn around CNN's morning show," Brian Stelter, the New York Times media reporter and author of "Top of the Morning" about the morning news wars, told TheWrap. "I hope that his boss and his lieutenants have the patience that's necessary. Zucker knows that because he was patient with the 'Today’ show in the '90s. So, if anybody can be patient enough to get a following to CNN's morning show, it's Jeff Zucker."
Zucker's first few months at CNN have been a mix of gaffes and successes. Ratings took off during the search for the Boston Bombing suspects, but the network was the first of several outlets to wrongly report an arrest, days early. The network’s reporting on a guilty verdict of teenaged defendants in a Steubenville rape case also drew criticism.
Internally, he wasted no time installing his own people in key executive roles, bringing in Allison Gollust, his former PR right hand from NBC, and pushing CNN's executive vice president Mark Whitaker (who was credited with the channel’s overall approach) out the door.
Zucker has demonstrated a preference for talent with personality, poaching ABC's Jake Tapper and adding ESPN’s Rachel Nichols to their ranks, among others. In doing so, he has bid goodbye to network news veterans and commentators including Soledad O’Brien, Roland Martin, James Carville and Maria Cardona.
"I think he basically went in there to establish it was his network, got involved with everything and made people react quicker," a high ranking executive at rival MSNBC, who wanted to remain anonymous, told TheWrap. "Step one is to wake everybody up and make sure they react."
CNN has always cornered the market for breaking news, but it has had a hard time keeping viewers around for its scheduled programming. Zucker is trying to change that by bringing in recognizable and engaging personalities and broadening the news channel’s appeal.
"He’s got a tricky thing, he's got to thread a needle," the MSNBC exec explained. "He has the best brand in news, but has to figure out how to differentiate itself from the competition."
But one former CNN executive says the network is also latching on to less serious stories.
"Where Zucker wants to take CNN is down market, sensationalized cruise ship-type coverage," a former high ranking executive at CNN said, a reference to the news channel’s live around-the-clock coverage of a Carnival Cruise ship which was stuck at sea with an inoperable sewer system in February – dubbed CNN’s "poop ship."
Critics and the online media were harsh about the "poop ship" coverage.
But Stephen Battaglio, TV Guide Magazine's business editor who wrote a book about the "Today" show called "From Yesterday to Today," says CNN "didn't do it at the expense of news that would be deemed more important."
But others would disagree. "Some things they do stupidly, like the ship, that was ridiculous," the MSNBC executive said.
In its defense, a CNN executive said that the network's coverage of the cruise ship led to some of its highest ratings, so clearly its audience was interested in the story.
And as for the idea that the news channel is going downmarket, the CNN executive pointed out that the news channel has added an hour of international news to the day and touts the journalistic resumes of Tapper, Cuomo, Bolduan and Pereira.
Additionally, the individual says viewers can expect "New Day" to be more "newsier" than the broadcast morning shows, much closer to "CBS This Morning" than "GMA" and "Today."
"We're not going to be doing cooking segments and concerts," the executive said.
Over the past four months, Zucker has tried some new things with little success. Last month, he launched a one-week test of a new panel-style show headed up by Donny Deutsch. An embarrassing failure, it averaged 268,000 viewers an episode versus the 446,000 viewers who tuned into the hour’s usual "AC 360" reruns.
Also read: Jeff Zucker's CNN: a New 'Today'?
Speaking of "AC 360," last week Zucker tried a new panel-style format for that show, as well, with a more dressed down Anderson Cooper. It ended up becoming the least-watched broadcast on cable news at 10 p.m. and the second lowest with adults 25-54, averaging 503,000 total viewers and 167,000 in the demo.
Is there a bright spot for CNN? To risk sounding crude, yes, during the coverage of last month’s Boston Marathon attack. While Fox News’ coverage was the most-watched, CNN won the coveted 25-54 news demo.
Furthermore, the attack and the deadly explosion in West Texas certainly played in to CNN’s strength for being the destination for breaking news coverage. It saw a 79 percent boost in total viewership, averaging 638,000 total-day viewers, compared to last April's 356,000. In the 25-54 demo, the network climbed 109 percent with a total-day average of 228,000 over April 2012.
It should be noted, though, that April 2012 was CNN’s worst month since August 2001 in both the key demo and total viewers. Also, Fox News trounced CNN for total viewers with 1.2 million viewers in April. So commanding were Fox’s numbers that it ranked No. 2 among all cable channels — news and otherwise — behind just USA Network.
Nonetheless, Zucker celebrated the victory over his old stomping grounds, MSNBC, in a memo to staff which read: "For the month of April, CNN posted its best ratings since the November election, and we also topped MSNBC for the first time in more than a year. Year-to-date, CNN is now the #2 cable news network in America."
Next month, viewers will get a chance to judge for themselves if Zucker can recall that morning magic to CNN with "New Day."