How Jeff Zucker Can Make CNN Less Boring (Analysis)

9:30 AM PST 12/06/2012 by Andrew Tyndall
Todd Detwiler

Andrew Tyndall writes for THR that the news network needs essential programming that viewers can't help but share, instead of playing it safe.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

With the hiring of Jeff Zucker as its new worldwide president, Time Warner implicitly has announced that it considers CNN to be a TV channel, which needs a TV insider to fix it. Although he started at NBC News, Zucker has spent the lion's share of his career as a TV executive -- first running NBC, then a stable of broadcast and cable channels -- not as a newsman.

Considering CNN's declining U.S. audience in primetime and its stagnant reputation for creating journalistic buzz, Zucker's arrival declares that, for the brass at Time Warner, the doldrums at CNN are a problem of its programming, not its journalism.

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Programmer Zucker can be expected to apply the classic formulas of television to CNN's lineup: personality and flow. CNN's founding formula -- that the news is the star -- has long become redundant. The network, created in an era of news scarcity, now is trying to find its way at a time when news is a commodity.

"Personality & Flow" is an easy slogan to parrot. First, find a major star whose take on the day's news is distinctive and attractive, then build a lineup of compatible figures who logically lead into and out of the star's time slot. The core potential daily audience for a cable news channel is so narrow that ratings success is easier to achieve by creating a logical sequence of successive hosts -- meaning that a loyal audience will tend to stay tuned longer each night -- than it is to attract fresh new viewers to each new hour. The primetime lineup at Fox News Channel travels through Bill O'Reilly. MSNBC nearly found the right formula by organizing around Keith Olbermann; it turned out that his protege, Rachel Maddow, was a better fit.

At the moment, CNN attempts to propose that there is such a link from Wolf Blitzer to Erin Burnett to Anderson Cooper to Piers Morgan … and then to Anderson Cooper again. But it is difficult to pin down that logic. Fox News and MSNBC have an ideological orientation to guide them through the night; CNN has made it a point of pride to avoid political partisanship. So, when the topic of its programming often happens to be political -- as is the case especially with Blitzer and Burnett -- it is hard to find hosts with a distinctive voice and an attractive persona when, at the same time, they are constrained to avoid opinions on matters ideological.

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Zucker is inheriting a political worldview at CNN that tended to look for the third way, between an ideological left and an ideological right, in a nonpartisan centrism -- the least dynamic position imaginable from which to make thought-provoking television. Just ask yourself: How many times in the past couple of years has a piece of CNN video appeared in your inbox or been circulated via social media or been embedded in a post you have been reading? When a news organization is creating provocative journalism, it gets sent on to you whether you are in its core audience or not. The general absence of CNN's programming in such feeds is what gives it its reputation for stagnation.

Nonetheless, Zucker was, indeed, a producer of news before he became a programmer of television. He honed his skills in morning programming, at NBC's Today, so when he talked Nov. 29 on a conference call about news being "more than politics and war" and including "sports, fashion and technology," we can envision his different third way between an ideological left and an ideological right -- one that is located outside the political spectrum rather than inside its cramped center.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of institutional problems with this formulation as well. First, choosing nonpolitical topics as the subject matter that allows hosts to express a highly opinionated, distinctive personality already is being done at CNN's sister network HLN. Second, while a morning-show-style approach would indeed offer a third way to set CNN apart from its cable news competitors, it also would embody a frivolous tone that undercuts CNN's lasting claim as an indispensable journalistic source -- namely as the go-to channel during times of crisis for non-news-junkies who want nuts-and-bolts reporting free of partisan spin. It is that reputation that CNN has been able to maintain so far, even if its cost has been the shrinkage of its primetime audiences on slow news days.

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So, in the end, the revamping of CNN turns out to be a question of journalism after all, not a question of television. Zucker's task is not about hiring and firing some big-name anchors, or about rejiggering the flow of programming -- though that, surely, needs to be done. He needs to find fresh ways -- a new third way -- for CNN to make video news.

CNN needs a fresh set of priorities and perspectives, a worldview that is not preoccupied by finding the ever-diminishing midpoint in a series of inside-the-Beltway partisan power struggles. Instead, it should seek topics that our current politics ignores, or is afraid to confront, presenting us with false choices. A shift from looking at the politics of issues to the underlying policies at stake no longer would replicate the current stale Beltway debates but critique them from an outside-the-Beltway perspective.

Such a worldview could, indeed, create journalistic buzz. It would, of course, include sports and fashion and technology as well as nutrition and climate and sexuality, but not as a softer, more frivolous antidote to the hard news of politics. Instead, CNN's serious journalism could develop its own in-house bench of expertise about such topics to illuminate where our current bipolar politics has a blind spot.

Andrew Tyndall is an independent news analyst and publisher of Tyndall Report.

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