Former NBC chief won't have to deal with an entertainment division – but desperately needs to entertain
Jeff Zucker's new position at CNN allows him to focus on the journalism he says has always been the best part of his career – without having to worry about the entertainment decisions that darkened his tenure at NBCUniversal.
At CNN, just as he did at NBCU, the former "Today" executive producer, will lead a vast portfolio of successful cable channels — but also as a flagship network that lags its rivals in the ratings. NBC spent most of the Zucker years in fourth place, just as CNN now trails MSNBC and Fox News.
Also read: Jeff Zucker Named Head of CNN
Most criticisms of his term at NBCU involve his handling of entertainment. But at CNN, Zucker won't bear the burden of trying to find replacements for "Friends" and "Seinfeld," or trying to navigate the Conan O'Brien-Jay Leno fiasco.
His work in news has received generally high marks.
"The best years of my career were spent as a journalist, and in news, and in some respects this is a return to a daily form of where I felt most comfortable and had some really successful years," Zucker told TheWrap on Thursday. "There's no doubt I made mistakes in the entertainment world, and I own those. But I feel really excited about being able to return to daily news both on television and in digital."
"I'm very familiar with all of Jeff's successes and all things he probably wishes might have turned out better," said Phil Kent, chairman and CEO of CNN parent company Turner Broadcasting System. "I was looking for a very specific talent here which would be someone who would be a great leader of a news organization. Whether Jeff Zucker was the greatest head of the NBC entertainment businesses or not was irrelevant to my search."
But CNN still desperately needs to entertain in order to draw fickle viewers who flock to the network for major stories, then drift off during slow periods. What's unclear is how Zucker plans to draw a larger, more consistent audience. The most obvious way would be adding more big names.
"My guess is way down the road he would like to recruit Katie Couric," said former NBC News president Richard Wald, a Columbia University journalism professor whose son, Jonathan Wald, executive produces CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight."
Couric is an obvious possibility since Zucker executive produces "Katie," her new daytime talk show on ABC. He will leave the show in January when he starts his duties at CNN.
A rep for Couric did not respond to a query Thursday about whether she might one day follow Zucker to CNN, which previously tried to hire her when her contract ended with CBS.
The network has already landed one big personality in Anthony Bourdain, the "No Reservations" host who left the Travel Channel for an upcoming CNN Sunday show.
Zucker said he liked the Bourdain hiring, especially for a lighter, weekend show. He declined to name other people he'd like to bring to CNN.
"His eye isn't on one person or two people or three people," said Wald. "His eye is on the whole field."
Wald noted that CNN is already filled with "highly competent people who can produce anything anywhere in the world. … He's not going to throw them all out."
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Zucker and Kent echoed the longstanding CNN dictum that journalism is more important than viewers. But Zucker conceded — in a response to a question from a CNN reporter — that he would like to beat Fox News and MSNBC.
Pressed on how to do that, he said at one point, "I've been here for an hour."
What CNN won't do is go the partisan route. Fox News and MSNBC hosts have no trouble ginning up passionate, partisan arguments on even the slowest of news days. But that doesn't make sense for CNN, which boasts a global reach of 2 billion people, many of whom are uninterested in domestic squabbles. The network also espouses a traditional journalistic disdain for choosing a team.
So how will CNN appeal to short attention spans?
The models might include "Today," which Zucker led to ratings dominance at NBC, and "Katie."
Under Zucker, "Today" began 16-year streak of being No. 1 in morning shows that ABC's "Good Morning America" finally broke in April.
Zucker helped establish the winning "Today" mix of hard and soft news. Anchors Matt Lauer and Couric switched easily between chit-chat with celebrities, outdoor concerts and hard nosed interrogations. The show has struggled to find that balance since, a factor in Ann Curry's exit.
But while "Today" has slipped since the Zucker years, NBC overall has made improvements. Zucker departed as chief of NBCUniversal at the end of 2010, as Comcast completed its acquisition of the company.
Since then, new entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt has helped the network tie for third place in the ratings last season and take first place so far this season – a position it is likely to lose when CBS airs the Super Bowl and Fox brings back "American Idol."
Partly because of its daytime format, "Katie" often emphasizes human-interest stories over the serious news stories that CNN does best.
Zucker said no one should expect CNN to limit itself to hard news.
"News is not just about politics and war," he said.