Network Resurrection

Can Jeff Zucker, Rumored to Be Next CNN Worldwide Chief, Save the Network?

Lloyd Grove on whether the former wunderkind and NBC boss will be able to use ‘big ideas’ to rescue the struggling network.

Jeff Zucker will have his work cut out for him when he takes over CNN, the once-dominant cable news outlet that in recent years has fallen and can’t seem to get up.

“We’ve been rudderless and without leadership,” a network insider told The Daily Beast before Zucker was formally announced Thursday as CNN's new leader. “There have been different tones between different divisions. The programming coming out of Atlanta feels very different from the programming out of New York and the programming out of Washington. What is the voice of CNN?”

The 47-year-old Zucker—who was a television news wunderkind as the ground-breaking executive producer of NBC’s Today program two decades ago, and ended up running the entire NBC Universal empire, including cable networks, a movie studio and amusement parks—must try to answer that question as the leading candidate to replace CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton, who announced his departure last summer amid a steep ratings decline for CNN’s U.S. outlet. (The slide has hurt the network’s image, never mind that CNN’s domestic and international operations will generate a robust $600 million in profit this year for its parent company, Time Warner Inc. And never mind that viewers still tend to switch to CNN for big breaking news events, such as the network’s top-rated election night coverage.)

Having been removed from his perch in 2010 by NBC’s then-new corporate master, Comcast (but with an estimated $30 million golden parachute), Zucker has been helping his old Today pal Katie Couric launch her syndicated daytime show, executive producing Katie since its debut in September.

Starting in January at CNN, one of Zucker’s many challenges will be to define and strengthen the voice of the cable operation which calls itself “the most trusted name in news” and was founded 31 years ago by media visionary Ted Turner.

With his background in both hard news and entertainment and his decisive, hard-charging leadership style, Zucker seems well-positioned to improve morale in the short term and attempt innovations at the outlet, which ranks third behind the top-rated Fox News Channel and second-place MSNBC (which, as head of NBC Universal, he used to oversee). But with so many moving parts and so many judgments to be made regarding on-air talent, the task of repairing of CNN/U.S.’s schedule, especially in prime time, will be thorny at best, according to CNN insiders and network news veterans who spoke on condition of anonymity. CNN, meanwhile, declined to comment on the reports about Zucker.

For one thing, Zucker will soon find himself in the middle of an executive-suite culture clash, a veteran television executive predicted. “Jeffrey Bewkes’s vision is that CNN ought to be the crown jewel of Time Warner,” said this executive, referring to Time Warner’s chairman and CEO. “That is, its sensibility should be closer to the Economist and the Financial Times than to the New York Post. But both Phil Kent [the Atlanta-based chief executive of Turner Broadcasting, Zucker’s prospective boss] and Jim Walton had a ‘local news’ interpretation of what CNN should be. Bewkes never cottoned to that. He wanted quality journalism. He wanted to win the right way. The challenge for Zucker is going to be to make the network more interesting and relevant without wading into the food fights you see on the other networks.”

This executive speculated that Zucker will initially try to lure big-name talent to CNN, starting with his old friend Matt Lauer—a surprising scenario given that Lauer, who has sustained hurtful criticism in the trade press for Today’s own ratings slide, recently re-upped at NBC for a reported $25 million a year. “Piers Morgan should be worried,” the executive added, referring to CNN’s 9 p.m. host who replaced Larry King in January 2011 and, to put it mildly, has yet to catch on. Maybe after Lauer’s contract ends in a little less than two years, Lauer could be persuaded to take CNN’s 9 p.m. slot. “Matt could generate big numbers over at CNN,” said the source. “Zucker couldn’t pay him as much, but maybe he could let Matt have an ownership stake.”

Another knowledgeable observer, a veteran network producer, suggested that Zucker would try to recruit Couric. “I suspect he’s going to try to bring Katie in to replace Piers Morgan,” said this person—another vote against the former Fleet Street editor and British television personality. “I think Jeff’s real skill-set is his big ideas. He’ll know how to supersize everything and make it more fun to watch. There will be more interesting coverage of natural disasters and politics. CNN will be supersized and branded. He’s really great at branding.” Indeed, back at North Miami Senior High School, when he won election as president of the senior class, the 5-foot-6 Zucker ran as “the little man with the big ideas.”

CNN has a deep bench of on-air talent—Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer among them—and insiders mentioned such personalities as Sanjay Gupta, Erin Burnett, Fareed Zakaria, Ashley Banfield, Ali Velshi, and Soledad O’Brien as potential members of Zucker’s A-Team, although the producer suggested that Cooper “damaged his brand with that silly talk show,” i.e. the syndicated daytime show Anderson that was recently canceled by Time Warner’s Telepictures.

Zucker, who is likely to be far more hands-on in day to day production and editorial judgments than Walton was, “lives and breathes the news and current events and the world,” said the executive. “He’s a great producer of breaking news. The challenge would be to channel that passion in a way that goes beyond just standing in a control room.”

A serious weakness, said this source, is Zucker’s apparent lack of interest or expertise in the digital world—a critical and growing part of CNN’s franchise. Moreover, Zucker is less a long-term strategist than an in-the-moment problem-solver. Also, it’s unclear if Phil Kent, who has thrived at CNN for two decades, is eagerly embracing Zucker’s impending arrival; it’s possible that Zucker was imposed upon him from above. Whatever the case, if history is any guide, Zucker is unlikely to show much respect for the bureaucratic imperatives of Atlanta.

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“The fact that Zucker would be hired in the first place,” said the exec, “can be seen as a token of Bewkes’s dismay at Phil’s administration of CNN.” A spokesman for Bewkes didn’t respond to email and voicemail messages.

Zucker—who also didn’t respond to an email—has a decidedly mixed track record when it comes to programming and talent relations. While NBC’s cable properties such as Bravo and CNBC flourished on his watch, the broadcast network tanked, slipping from first place to fourth. His rare programming successes—such as Fear Factor and Donald Trump’s The Apprentice —didn’t exactly appeal to the highest common denominator. And as NBC News anchor Brian Williams joked two years ago during a roast at which the just-fired Zucker received an award named for CBS legend Frank Stanton: “Jeff has so much in common with Frank—a competitive spirit, strong work ethic and, of course, both were instrumental in turning CBS into a ratings powerhouse.” Meanwhile, who can forget Zucker’s less than deft handling of the transition from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien and back again—one of the more lurid debacles in television history?

“As soon as Jeff left the cocoon of news, the world became more complicated,” says the veteran television executive. “His response to Hollywood was to lash out, reject the system, decry people as idiots and dinosaurs, and insist on having his way. And he took NBC to last place. He probably feels a sense of comfort coming back to news. He’s passionate about the news, and that kind of enthusiasm is much needed and welcome.”