Can ex-NBC boss Jeff Zucker make CNN into must-see TV news?

Senior Television Writer
11.29.12 26 Comments

The Jeff Zucker era at NBC was a never-ending fountain of both comedy (though not the successful kind) and tragedy, as the former “Today” producer inherited the aging but still strong foundation of Must-See TV and proceeded to turn the network into the biggest joke in the business. He never tried to hide his disdain for the entertainment business and tried to succeed not through developing great programs to take the torch from “Friends” and “ER,” but rather through gimmicks like super-sizing or Jay Leno five nights a week in primetime. He once famously said that NBC’s focus was now “managing for (profit) margins,” and not ratings. I can’t speak to the bottom line, but it was clear that Zucker and his various underlings weren’t doing a hot job of getting ratings.

As someone who focuses on the entertainment end of the TV business much more than the news one, I couldn’t help being amused by the news that Zucker had been hired as the new president of CNN, and by the run of Twitter jokes made by both my TV critic colleagues and sitcom writers who had the misfortune of dealing with Zucker, suggesting new CNN shows like “Emeril 360” or “Father of the Wolf,” to allude to two Zucker fiascos.

Early in a conference call on his first day on the job, Zucker was unsurprisingly asked about his less-than-stellar reign at NBC.

“There’s no doubt I made some mistakes in the entertainment world,” he said, “and I own those, but I feel really excited about being able to return to daily news.”

Turner Broadcasting chairman Phil Kent suggested that Zucker’s past in entertainment “is not relevant here,” and both he and Zucker alluded to his success at running “Today” in his 20s, and to the great success NBC’s cable divisions – including MSNBC – had at the same time the broadcast network was falling off a cliff.

There’s no question that Zucker’s more comfortable in the realms of both news and cable than he ever was trying to find mass-appeal sitcoms, dramas and reality shows. The question is what he, or anyone, can do with the fundamental problem with CNN – or, perhaps, with the audience for TV news in 2012.

Fox News has positioned itself solidly as the voice of the right, MSNBC as its counterpart on the left. CNN is, in theory, the neutral party that simply reports the facts, and should be appealing to both sides as a result. But that’s not the way the business seems to work anymore. People are less interested in news than they are in opinion – and an opinion that they agree with.

Zucker insisted there are no plans for CNN to become more partisan in either direction, and also said that “If we allow our competition to be defined only by the partisan political cable networks, then I think that’s a mistake.” He said the goals were to make the trademark journalism of CNN “relevant, vibrant and exciting in a world where consumers are getting their information in real time.”

Without naming ESPN directly, Kent alluded to the cable sports giant in noting that it’s figured out a formula to keep its fans watching both during huge sporting events and on the slowest of sports days, and said that was the model he wanted CNN to follow.

Of course, ESPN has done that in recent years in large part by undercutting its newsgathering operation in favor of more opinion and more salaciousness. Enter Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith, wall-to-wall coverage of the backup quarterback of the New York Jets, etc. It’s also opinion-driven, but usually in a debate format that gives both sides (no matter how ridiculous one or both of them may be) equal time.

Zucker and Kent frequently used the words “fun” and “fan” in their remarks about what they want the channel to become, and Zucker suggested they were going to expand the definition of what “news” is.

If the goal is to turn CNN into a “PTI”/”First Take” kind of network, it wouldn’t be a radical shift away from history. “Crossfire” was, after all, a long-running staple.

Can Zucker be the man to reinvent cable news without erasing what the point of it is? We’ll have to see – he kept ducking specific questions on the call, noting, “I’ve been here an hour” – but at the very least, he’s much more qualified for this gig than when he was put in charge of NBC primetime.

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