Jeff Zucker’s reign of shock and awe has only just begun.
Well, maybe not “shock,” since the new president of CNN Worldwide has made no secret of his intention to shake up the ratings-challenged cable network from top to bottom.
Zucker launched his makeover Tuesday by announcing the imminent arrival of ABC News anchor Chris Cuomo to take over the troubled 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. slot currently occupied by Soledad O’Brien. According to network sources, Cuomo, who was said to be unhappy at ABC’s 20/20 since being passed over in 2009 for the top job at Good Morning America, will be joined in the morning by the current anchor of CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront, leaving a hole for Zucker to fill at 7 p.m.
CNN veteran O’Brien’s fate is up in the air, though it’s probable she’ll receive a plum assignment. “Soledad is very important to the network and we are discussing various options with her,” a CNN spokeswoman said in a terse statement.
That sort of decisive leadership is exactly what Zucker was hired to bring by Time Warner chief executive Jeffrey Bewkes, who lured the former chairman of NBC Universal from his perch running Katie Couric’s syndicated daytime show.
The 47-year-old Zucker started his first official day of work at CNN Jan. 21 by kibitzing in the Washington control room of the outlet’s live presidential inaugural coverage. He was, by most accounts, on his best behavior, mostly observing instead of ordering camera shots punctuated by shouted obscenities—his M.O. two decades ago when he was the precocious, wildly successful executive producer of NBC’s Today program.
The previous week at a town meeting in New York for 600 CNN employees, Zucker made it clear that one of his top priorities would be trying to fix the cable outlet’s troubled morning program, and Tuesday, he was as good as his word. Among other programming changes, former ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper is expected to anchor the 4 p.m. slot, appropriating an hour from The Situation Room's Wolf Blitzer, and former ESPN personality Rachel Nichols will preside over a weekend sports show.
Meanwhile, attendees of Tuesday’s regular 10 a.m. news meeting on the fifth floor of the Time Warner Center found the bald-pated Zucker sitting in the captain’s chair normally occupied by CNN Managing Editor Mark Whitaker, who’d announced his resignation a couple of hours earlier.
“We have a new leader with his own forceful ideas about where to take CNN’s reporting, programming, and brand,” Whitaker wrote in a lengthy memo explaining his departure, which he and Zucker have been discussing for the past few weeks. “For him to succeed, I believe he deserves his own team and management structure and the freedom to communicate one clear vision to the staff.”
Whitaker, a former editor of Newsweek, had been part of a management triumvirate that included CNN/US President Ken Jautz, based in New York and in charge of programming, and CNN International’s Atlanta-based vice president Tony Maddox, who runs news operations. The arrangement, by many accounts, fostered conflict and confusion, with no clear lines of authority—a problem immediately solved by Zucker’s decision to run the 10 a.m. meeting for the foreseeable future. More executive departures and arrivals are in the offing, CNN insiders predicted, and Zucker will likely recruit such longtime loyalists as Michael Bass, a member of Team Zucker at NBC and currently co-executive producer of Katie.
Meanwhile, CNN’s relationship with political contributor Erick Erickson, the major domo of the right wing Red State blog, has also ended; he's jumping to Fox News. Zucker also said goodbye after 11 years to James Carville and Mary Matalin.
“It makes perfect sense to me,” said Carville, who, in a friendly phone conversation 10 days ago with Zucker, was told that CNN’s pundits will be on-camera in studios in Washington and New York instead of from remote locations like Carville and Matalin’s New Orleans. “It’s kind of the Fox Five model," Carville said, noting that he is plenty busy with speeches and international and corporate consulting. "I’m not surprised he wants to bring in his own people. I think he has every right to.”