It's Official: Jeff Zucker Tapped to Lead CNN

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Jeff Zucker, the former NBC News wunderkind who climbed the ladder to the top job at NBCUniversal, will lead ratings-challenged CNN as its new president. The announcement came Thursday from Phil Kent, chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting, and caps several months of speculation. As president of CNN Worldwide, Zucker will oversee CNN/U.S., CNN International, CNN.com and sister network HLN. He'll begin in January, reporting to Kent and based in New York.

Zucker replaces Jim Walton, a 31-year veteran of CNN who announced in July that he would step down after years of declining ratings at CNN; the formerly top-rated cable news network hit a 21-year ratings nadir in the second quarter of this year.

Zucker is currently executive producer of Katie Couric’s daytime talker on ABC. Zucker’s intention was to help launch Couric in daytime, say sources close to the show, but he was unlikely to stay at the program for the two-year commitment it has received from ABC despite a hefty $20 million fee to have been split with Couric over the two years. He'll have to negotiate his way out of that deal without leaving too much money on the table, including an ownership stake in the show with Couric. Another producer likely will be brought in to run the day-to-day with current producers Kathy Samuels and Michael Bass, a former Today executive producer. But with Samuels and Bass in place and Zucker remaining through a transition process, there is no urgency to name a replacement.

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In Zucker, CNN gets a leader with a much different temperament and relationship to the news business than the well-liked but hands-off Walton. Even when he was CEO of NBCUni, Zucker was known to keep his hands in the news side of NBC’s business, sending e-mails to Today producers with suggestions or comments on coverage. And since he was replaced as NBCUni's CEO by Steve Burke at the conclusion of the Comcast deal, he has been chafing to find a new role on the bigger media stage. With CNN, he gets his wish. The beleaguered network has been adrift between partisan channels Fox News and MSNBC, which boast appointment viewing with their stable of opinionated primetime hosts.

Meanwhile, CNN has stubbornly clung to a programming model that relies on big news events to bring eyeballs. But more recently, it has faltered even there. Fox News bested CNN on Election Night, after CNN easily won the night four years ago. And CNN stumbled during coverage of the Supreme Court’s decision on President Obama's health care legislation, erroneously reporting that the high court had struck down the law before correcting itself (Fox News also briefly misreported the court’s ruling).

CNN still is profitable -- to the tune of $600 million a year -- thanks to its dual revenue stream of ad revenue and carriage fees and enviable digital footprint. For the month of October, CNN.com pulled in 68 million unique users compared with 56 million at NBC News and 35 million at Fox News. But when Zucker was running NBC, he famously decried trading analog dollars for digital pennies. Of course, his stance there has evolved; in 2009, he noted, “we’re at digital dimes now.” But his experience and fealty for the digital business is one area where several veteran news executives see a blind spot. “He doesn’t care about it,” said one. “And it’s a huge part of CNN’s business.”

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What is not in dispute however are Zucker’s news instincts (even if his taste in scripted programming was a point of contention during his tenure at NBC Entertainment). At 27, he was the youngest-ever executive producer of NBC's Today show and set the program on its 16-year morning news winning streak. And as CEO of NBCUni, he was the driving force in bringing Meredith Vieira to Today, a move that enabled the program to stay atop the morning news ratings after Couric departed in 2006.

It remains to be seen how Zucker will put his stamp on CNN’s primetime lineup. His most urgent problem could be the 8 p.m. hour, where Anderson Cooper 360 is suffering since being moved there from its longtime home at 10 p.m.

More recently, CNN also has branched into unscripted territory; it will bow shows fronted by Anthony Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock next year. In October, the network announced a film unit to acquire feature-length documentaries to air on CNN and its international channels. CNN Films already has deals in place with Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) and Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room).

Of course, like most executives with tenure in the industry, Zucker also has his share of baggage. His plan to save production costs at NBC by moving Jay Leno to primetime ended in the messy public ouster of Conan O’Brien at host of The Tonight Show.

Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie

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