Jeff Zucker at CNN: Beyond the Shock, a Critic's Suggestion
THR's Tim Goodman explains the best possible strategy for the news outlet's new president.
Holy hell, Jeff Zucker just can’t be kept down, can he? There might not be an executive who has failed upward so swiftly in decades. He took NBC from first to fourth, made some of the worst decisions in years (Jay Leno at 10 p.m., scrapping hours of scripted programming and alienating the creative community, firing Kevin Reilly – now at Fox – for Ben Silverman, etc.). Tricks and gimmicks either didn’t work or didn't work for long. He programmed for the margins. He made sure the beans were counted. But under his reign, the Peacock got slaughtered.
And yet here he is, the hitless wonder back in the spotlight as head of CNN Worldwide, the guy who is supposedly tasked with getting the mojo back, making CNN the journalism leader in a partisan field.
Except, is he really? Is that why Jeff Bewkes hired him? Almost every article about Zucker’s hiring at CNN talks about his ability to "shake it up." Didn’t he shake up NBC pretty impressively, leaving it in shards that Bob Greenblatt is still trying to pick back up and glue together?
I’m not so convinced that Zucker was hired to make CNN something other than not-Fox News and not-MSNBC. The company is profitable. The brand is strong and resilient. When all hell breaks loose, as it often does, everyone who isn't a fire-breathing partisan goes to CNN -- purely on muscle memory -- to see what’s happening.
Obviously, you don’t tinker with that. And Bewkes has hinted he doesn’t want CNN to go partisan. So take that option off the table. Even if it might make the most sense. If CNN went full-on left wing, it would crush MSNBC in short order, then lure in MSNBC’s best talent when their contracts were up. That’s a plan that would work. It’s decisive and clean.
But if that’s not an option, then what is? Partisans always will want the news their side is feeding them, so Fox News and MSNBC won’t lose viewers. Zucker wasn’t hired to gut the core principles of CNN. He was hired to get better ratings in primetime. That’s all. If you’re thinking, “Yeah, we’ll that’s the hard part,” here’s your MacArthur genius grant.
So what are his options? Not a lot, as it turns out. And Zucker might be asking himself in no time why he wanted the job. Other than it would help his reputation by taking a news channel that is perceived to be losing and turning it around. It would be the anti-NBC years. Yeah, but those aforementioned options are not plentiful. Zucker will need to be especially creative.
In non-news moments, CNN’s ratings are weak because they are not banging the ideological drum. So Zucker can’t simply create more talking-head programs where Wolf Blitzer and John King or whoever talk to people from “both sides,” boring the audience witless. That’s been done. In fact, he’d be crazy to stick to the notion that politics are what people want when there are no bombs falling. If you get into punditry, you get away from news, and CNN wants to be your unbiased news option, even though most people in this country probably think that concept doesn't exist. So take talking-head punditry off the table.
What does that leave Zucker? Well, he’s got two clear options.
First, he can take Blitzer and King and the newsy types and the respectable wonks and brand them as some kind of journalism Avengers – a collection of people glassed off in a booth where you can see them out of the corner of your eye while Zucker entertains you.
Yeah, entertains you. Turns the lights up, adds some sizzle -- like a morning show, only in the evening when people who like morning shows are still awake -- in a two-hour block starting at 8 p.m., eating up the bulk of primetime. At 10 p.m., he lets out the Avengers. They can discuss issues of the day exactly how they’re doing it now. If a war breaks out, then Zucker -- who will no doubt revamp the PR and branding folks -- will make sure the screen has "Special Report" or "Middle East Armageddon" in bold letters. If he lightens up the day with nonpolitical, nonpolarizing entertainment-oriented blocks or, at the very least, lighter and brighter fare with nary a gray beard anywhere, then he can gamble on that strategy for ratings while keeping the respected news brand.
And that’s what Zucker likely will do. Rebrand within a brand. Light and bright with a news crawl or some creative online aspect over here and Blitzer, King and the other Avengers over there. No war? Topical, entertaining, populist (and hopefully popular). War? Unleash the news hounds!
All Zucker has to do is jumpstart the primetime ratings. And he really only has to make a lot of noise in the first two hours of primetime. Granted, he didn’t really do that at NBC, which brings us back to those first few sentences of shock and surprise. CNN hired who?
But it’s not an impossible task. Certainly easier than what a lot of people are chattering on about with this shake-up nonsense. CNN isn’t broke; it’s chipped and dented. It’s fixable. That other option? The one that doesn’t involve entertainment or sizzle?
Turning CNN into The War Channel.
Wall-to-wall coverage of fighting, abroad and at home. At home? Sure. We’re still worried about terrorist attacks. People watch Homeland. And fear can be packaged and sold just as well as entertainment. Think about it. There’s armed conflict everywhere. There’s everyday terror. No 24-hour-news channel is better fit to cover that than CNN. Certainly Fox and MSNBC couldn’t. They could spin it. But CNN could show it. And show it constantly. Package it, sell it, win with it.
I’m not talking some tiny genre-specific Military Channel (though aspects of that would work well). No. The War Channel. Worldwide. No more messing around – 24 hours of explosions, threats, terrorism and the teetering of countries and governments. It’s a miracle such a full-blown channel doesn’t exist. Ah, an unfilled vacuum. Whatever Zucker chooses, he can’t make oatmeal out of it. Right now, CNN sans war is oatmeal. If he’s going in for a little of this, a little of that, forget it. That undefined stuff is death in the ratings.
Create an identity -- that’s probably what Bewkes told him. With the caveat, “Don’t lose the one we have.” You’d be crazy or dumb to take that job. But if you got it to work somehow, it would be the kind of success that might wipe out years of spectacular failure.
Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com Twitter: @BastardMachine