U.S. News

04.10.14

CNN’s Plans After the Missing Plane: “We Are Going There.”

Ever since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing, CNN has devoted hours of its programming to little else. They were right to, insisted CNN chief Jeff Zucker, as he unveiled the channel’s new raft of shows.

That missing plane? Still missing.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370—whose strange disappearance five weeks ago continues to be an on-camera staple and ratings godsend for CNN—was barely mentioned in the cable outlet’s slick presentation Thursday afternoon of its new programming plans, re-branded corporate identity and re-jiggered slogan, which happens to be “Go there.”        

The “upfront” as these network rollouts are called—CNN’s first in several years—featured a video in which anchors aplenty from Chris Cuomo to Don Lemon to Sanjay Gupta to Erin Burnett revealed how many different ways, and with how many repetitions, they could use the phrase “Go there.” A great many, it turns out, e.g. Cuomo: “When I think about the mission of journalism, it’s all about being able to… go there.” Or Christiane Amanpour: “We are absolutely going there.”        

Silver-maned Anderson Cooper managed not to repeat the slogan in the video—at least I wasn’t able to catch him at it—but later, off-stage, he explained: “The idea of ‘going there,’ I like that. To me, that’s what CNN is all about—that ‘go there’ idea. But that’s more of a branding thing.”

Indeed. At least it’s less of a mouthful than “the most trusted name in news.”

CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker—who has been in the job for a little over a year, vying with MSNBC for second place in the ratings battle while Fox News remains (for the most part) comfortably on top—presided over the upfront in a cavernous event space in Manhattan’s West Side gallery district, where hundreds of attendees—advertisers, media reporters and executives from CNN’s parent company, Time Warner—gobbled hors d’oeuvres and bellied up to an open bar.

“I’ve never been more excited to represent the CNN brand than I am today,” Zucker told an audience that included Time Warner chairman and chief executive Jeffrey Bewkes. “News and information is still the core of who we are, and always will be,” he added. “Trust. Quality. Content. That’s not changing ever…What is changing is how we’re informing our consumers…The best way to truly inform is to tell a story, the whole story…Deeper, more immersive storytelling by people you cannot find anywhere else—the best, most well-known storytellers in the world.”

“It’s an incredible mystery. I think there were four significant developments today and I think there’s still tremendous interest in it among the audience.”

Vowing that CNN will continue to steer a middle ideological course between left-leaning MSNBC and right-leaning Fox, Zucker outlined a three-pronged programming strategy that essentially doubles down on what CNN has been attempting during the previous year: hard news, original series and documentaries. He said the pivotal 9 p.m. time slot—previously occupied by Larry King and, for a few disappointing years, by Piers Morgan—will be given over to original series and offerings from the documentary unit, CNN Films.

“For 30 years, CNN had a talk show at 9 p.m.,” Zucker said. “We believe that genre is no longer viable. There are too many outlets with not enough unique guests. Just because CNN has always done a talk show doesn’t mean we should be.”

Zucker announced several additions to a series schedule that already includes Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Morgan Spurlock Inside Man, Chicagoland and Death Row Stories. The new schedule will feature a program purporting to forensically investigate the evidence of the real-world Jesus, a nostalgic show produced by Tom Hanks and titled The Sixties, and shows hosted by John Walsh, Lisa Ling and Dirty Jobs impresario Mike Rowe (who briefly took the stage to talk about his made-for-CNN version, Somebody’s Gotta Do It).

Also planned are documentaries on the late film critic Roger Ebert, Boston mobster Whitey Bulger, the parlous state of higher education, and a transgender Navy Seal who changed his sex-identity from male to female. “The seamless integration of original series and live news coverage, which has been on display the last two months, is the foundation of our new primetime lineup,” Zucker told the crowd.

All of the above, obviously, is impressively expensive. “Time Warner has made an investment in CNN,” Zucker told me after his sales pitch, “and allows us to pursue this strategy. But you have to remember, it also opens us up to non-traditional news advertisers, right? So you open yourself up to new sources of revenue as well.”

Just how much is Time Warner spending to bankroll Zucker’s strategy? “I’m not going to get into that, as you can imagine,” he dodged.

Concerning MH 370, it’s still God knows where. The vanished Boeing 777, which was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard when it lost contact with flight controllers, may have been out of sight but certainly not out of mind.  

Zucker, for one, credited the cable outlet’s relentless 24/7 coverage of the absent airliner with an encouraging uptick in viewership for March and April.

“Well, yeah. For sure,” he told me. “It’s an incredible mystery. In an era when you can find your iPhone when you leave it in a taxi in New York by logging onto a web site, it defies logic that you could just lose a technological marvel…I think there were four significant developments in the search for the plane today and I think there’s still tremendous interest in it among the audience.”

Wolf Blitzer—who was among a dozen CNN personalities who were trotted out onstage at the end of Zucker’s performance like so many beauty pageant contestants—admitted to being one of those fascinated viewers; when he’s not anchoring his early-evening show The Situation Room, he said, he’s apt to tune in to CNN’s late-night live coverage of a news conference in Perth, Australia. “It’s an interesting story,” Blitzer told me. “I’m glad we’re doing it.”