05.10.13

Can ‘Chemistry’ Save CNN? Here’s the New Morning Show Team

The beleaguered cable network presented its ‘CNN New Day’ team to the media on Friday. Lloyd Grove on the knee-squeezing roadshow for the ‘super-newsy’ debut from Jeff Zucker.

It’s a new day at CNN—or, rather, a CNN New Day. It apparently took hundreds of suggestions from dozens of television professionals—many of their ideas, by most accounts, pretty awful—before the second-ranked cable network settled on a name for the latest iteration of its morning news program, scheduled to debut on June 17.

“It’s so much harder than you think,” Jeff Zucker, CNN’s new chief executive, confided on Friday to a gaggle of reporters who were lured to free breakfast at the Landmarc restaurant in the Time Warner Center.

“It’s hard to find a morning-show name that doesn’t sound too cheesy,” agreed Matt Frucci, the baby-faced executive producer of the soon-to-launch show.

“In the end,” said wizened network veteran Jim Murphy, freshly in charge of all of CNN’s historically troubled morning programming, “that one… did not replicate what everyone else was doing. It says exactly what it is. Every day’s a New Day. It’s a new morning show.”

Indeed it is.

As for the rejected titles, “I wanted it to be a symbol—like Prince,” joked former ABC News anchor Chris Cuomo, the host of New Day. His sassy cohost, Kate Bolduan, quipped: “The Jeff Zucker Show!”

Actually, The Jeff Zucker Show is as good a title as any for Friday’s proceedings, at which Cuomo, Bolduan, and Michaela Pereira—a recruit from KTLA’s top-rated morning show in Los Angeles—lined up with the suits in director’s chairs and did their best to charm the noshing journos. The 48-year-old Zucker—erstwhile executive producer of NBC’s Today, head honcho of NBC Universal (until he was ousted by the new corporate owners at Comcast), and co-creator of ABC daytime’s Katie (as in: his close friend Couric)—ran the table, making his first extended public comments since taking over CNN in January.

“It’s really important that we have a very strong and good morning show,” Zucker said, noting that New Day will start at 6 a.m. and, unlike its predecessors, run for three hours. “That’s why this is incredibly important. I want the day to start with a strong offering that sets the tone and the agenda for the entire network.”

Zucker said that poaching Cuomo from ABC, where he was co-anchoring 20/20, the prime-time magazine show, after three years as news reader at Good Morning America, was one of the first things he did on arriving at CNN.  Having picked his lead anchor, he considered several candidates to partner with Cuomo—and screen-tested him with five—before deciding on the blond Bolduan of CNN’s Washington bureau and luring the Canadian-born Pereira from L.A.

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Jeff Zucker, and wife, Caryn Stephanie Nathanson, attend a screening of "Girls Rising" on Wednesday March 6, 2013, at the Paris Theater in New York. (Andy Kropa/AP)

“The most important thing I did when I came here is ask Chris Cuomo to come over, and it’s been a fantastic few months for Chris,” Zucker said as the object of his affections sucked on an Altoid. “Every day I’m so thrilled. He’s such an integral part of this team. And then to add Kate and see the chemistry that we saw when we put these two together! We all know how important that is in morning television.”  Zucker added: “When we saw Michaela, we knew right away…When I first met Michaela, I said, ‘Holy shit! Where have you been?’ ”

There was a great deal of talk about “chemistry” and the elusive formula of mixing morning-show talent in-studio and on-camera—apparently an extremely delicate procedure, like the mating of giant pandas. “You can’t fake chemistry,” Zucker declared. “Sometimes you just know.”

“Chemistry” was conspicuously on display as the athletic-looking Cuomo sat between Bolduan and Pereira, both of whom frequently patted his knee.

“The team Jeff was able to put together with Jimmy and Matt—Kate knocking my socks off and becoming like an instant sister, constantly givin’ it to me,” Cuomo gushed. “Michaela, I’m so happy that you respectfully took my on-bended-knee entreaties to come here,” he went on, adding that the olive-complexioned Pereira “is so beautiful inside and out”—a compliment that earned him a knee-squeeze from its object.

“Chemistry” was conspicuously on display as the athletic-looking Cuomo sat between Bolduan and Pereira, both of whom frequently patted his knee.

As for widespread reports that Zucker’s initial choice for Cuomo’s TV wife was CNN’s Erin Burnett, who allegedly resisted his entreaties to abandon her 7 p.m. show, OutFront, for the early-morning gig, Zucker indicated that rumors of the nuptials were greatly exaggerated.

“I had two conversations with her,” Zucker said, “and in the end we both decided that it was probably more important for her and more important for the network that she stay where she was at 7. She preferred not waking up at that hour… But we never got beyond those two conversations.”

There was also a good deal of talk about how CNN New Day will distinguish itself from its competitors at the broadcast and cable networks—top-rated Fox News being first among them. Frucci said social media would be a component. Murphy said the show will be “super-newsy.” Zucker tried to set the bar at a reasonable height, saying he expected improvement in ratings performance but adding that he will be “patient.”

As he tried to depart, he was surrounded by a scrum of inquisitive breakfasters who pressed him on CNN’s occasionally error-prone coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings—Zucker stoutly defended his network, pointing out that, unlike other media, it was quick to correct mistakes—and whether he plans to continue airing CNN’s Sunday media-analysis show Reliable Sources.

“Of course. Yes,” Zucker said of the program hosted by Howard Kurtz, who until recently was Washington bureau chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast and devoted part of last Sunday’s installment to a series of journalistic errors he has made and the nature of his relationship to another Internet outlet, The Daily Download. “Reliable Sources will continue and Howie will continue to host that program.”