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Bodies Pile Up as Jeff Zucker Puts His Stamp on CNN

Jeff Zucker CNN - P 2013
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Mary Matalin, James Carville, Bill Bennett and others are shown the door as the cable network plots a way to break Hollywood news and move more heavily into sports and travel.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The Jeff Zucker era at CNN officially has begun with a cascade of personnel moves designed to overhaul the ailing network. On Jan. 29, he announced the hire of ABC News' Chris Cuomo to help stop the bleeding in the morning by joining a new program that will replace Soledad O'Brien's Starting Point, which has posted the 7-to-9 a.m. slot's worst ratings in a decade. Executives are talking to O'Brien about other opportunities at CNN. But it's likely that Erin Burnett, who hosts the 7 p.m. hour, will join the revamped morning program. The Cuomo move comes after CNN closed a long-gestating deal with ABC News' Jake Tapper, who was approached by CNN in 2010, say sources, but at the time signaled his desire to stay at ABC News through the 2012 presidential election. And ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols, whose contract was set to expire Jan. 31, will host a weekend sports program on CNN. She starts Feb. 1, when she will co-host the network's Super Bowl coverage with Turner's Ernie Johnson.

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The exodus also has begun, with managing editor Mark Whitaker, hired two years ago from NBC News, resigning a year ahead of the end of his deal. Also out are husband-and-wife pundits James Carville and Mary Matalin, who had been at CNN for decades. Sources say Carville was making in excess of $300,000. Other pundits ousted include Bill Bennett, Maria Cardona and Red State's Erik Ericson, who is heading to Fox News.

Agents representing TV news talent – both in front of and behind the camera — say Zucker’s appointment at CNN has made the landscape incredibly competitive again. And competing news organizations are locking in talent where they can; sources say that NBC News executives held a high-level meeting to assess talent contracts in the days after news broke that Zucker would take over. 

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More changes are coming. CNN also is looking to bring in reporters to break Hollywood news and boost travel and sports offerings. There is speculation that Piers Morgan could be shifted from his 9 p.m. slot -- despite it being CNN's high-ratings mark -- a year ahead of what his deal promises, if and when Zucker attracts more star wattage to the primetime roster. All of this, says analyst Andrew Tyndall, proves that Zucker "believes the problem is in front of the camera, not behind the camera."

Adds Tyndall: "Of all the moves he's made so far, I'm most impressed by Tapper. He would not be in the category of picking up a B-list network celebrity journalist. He's someone who has potential to actually be a star."