It was soon after the job of running CNN Worldwide became available that Jeff Zucker got a text message.
Phil Kent, the president of Turner Broadcasting, told him that since everyone already believed that they were talking about the job, perhaps they should get together.
They did, and continued to meet periodically in New York, even as Kent also huddled with others on his short list for the high-profile post.
By the time the company announced Thursday that Zucker had been chosen to lead the cable network (where I host a weekly media program), the two men were on the same page about CNN’s future direction and a belief that more than mere tinkering was needed.
Zucker said in an interview that CNN programs need “more differentiation” and “more variety, and I don’t mean that in the entertainment sense.” With CNN’s ratings rising and falling with the news cycle, Zucker said “the overriding issue is what do you do beyond the 25 days a year when there’s major breaking news?
“You don’t need to be partisan. CNN does need to stick to a nonpartisan point of view. That doesn’t mean there can’t be more passion and excitement.”
Passion and excitement aren’t words ordinarily associated these days with CNN, which has stuck to a traditional news formula and has fallen far behind Fox News in the ratings and sometimes behind MSNBC. In turning to the former chief executive of NBC to succeed the retiring Jim Walton, the network is acknowledging that it needs a significant overhaul by someone with serious TV news chops.
“I don’t want to get caught in the trap of thinking that Fox and MSNBC are our principal competition,” Zucker told me. “That’s way too limiting. Our competition is also Discovery, the History Channel, anyone that provides nonfiction programming.”
Kent emphasized that point in a call with reporters. “We have had shows about sports, fashion, and technology, and some of that is going to be revisited,” he said.
“Will it be weird to compete against MSNBC?” he asked. “No. Actually, it’ll be fun. All these guys are my friends.”
Turner executives came to believe that the man who launched the Today show on a 16-year winning streak, and supervised all NBC News programming, had the news instincts and experience to revamp CNN. Whatever mistakes he made at NBC were on the entertainment side, they concluded, and not relevant to CNN.
Zucker says he is undaunted at having to take on the cable network he helped build. “Will it be weird to compete against MSNBC?” he asked. “No. Actually, it’ll be fun. All these guys are my friends.”
But he does not underestimate the magnitude of the task at hand. “It would be a big challenge for anybody,” says Zucker. “I’m not naive about that. I’ve always thrived on challenges, both personally and professionally.”