Jeff Zucker Blasts Fox News, Says News Is Still CNN's Top Priority

Jeff Zucker CNN - P 2013
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Jeff Zucker CNN - P 2013

Jeff Zucker said he was thrilled to be back at the Television Critics Association press tour on Friday afternoon, his first trip to the event since he started his tenure as president of CNN Worldwide.

Covering rumored acquisitions (Jay Leno, Ann Curry) and defending the network's coverage of doc Blackfish, Zucker also addressed recent comments Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes made in The Hollywood Reporter that CNN was "out of the news business."

"There is no network covering American news as seriously and substantially as CNN," said Zucker. "I think that criticism is obviously meant to deflect your attention from the book that's in the news this week." (THR's interview was conducted Dec. 18, 2013.)

The book, an unauthorized Ailes biography by Gabriel Sherman that Ailes and Fox News did not take part in, had not made its way to Zucker yet -- though he had choice words for its contents.

"[It] confirms what we've known all along," he said. "The Republican Party is being run out of News Corp headquarters masquerading as a cable news channel."

When asked for comment, a rep for Fox News told THR that Zucker's remarks were "nothing more than an attempt to deflect attention from CNN's dismal ratings."

Q&A: Roger Ailes Says CNN 'Out of News Business', Megyn Kelly Critics 'Jealous'; Dismisses New Book

Fox News was not the only network Zucker called out. Left-leaning MSNBC also came up when he was asked about how they're covering news as the network makes a bigger push into series and documentary films.

"In the cable news arena, you have two partisan networks looking out for their viewers," said Zucker. "I think CNN needs to look out for the rest of us. … CNN is not and never will abandon our first and fundamental brand equity, which is news and breaking news -- covering today's news and putting it in context. It's the most important thing we do. We want to remain essential in news."

Still, in an effort to curb further ratings declines, Zucker said that other programming is important to the brand. (He ranked CNN's current priorities as news, growing primetime ratings, series and films, and digital -- in that order.)

New series will not, however, include a late-night show for Jay Leno. Zucker dismissed reports of his courting the outgoing Tonight Show host. "We have some other things that I'd like to concentrate on first," he said. "That's not in the cards anytime soon. I have a longtime relationship with Jay -- I think he's a terrific talent -- but that's not where our priorities are."

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The same goes for Ann Curry. Zucker seemed sure that his other former NBC employee is not free from her contract anytime soon.

One of the bigger efforts under Zucker's tenure, Oscar shortlist documentary Blackfish, was also a hot topic due to its frequent mentions on CNN newscasts -- 200, according to SeaWorld.

"We're incredibly proud of Blackfish," said Zucker. "We also thought that in addition to the film that it's a legitimate news story. I cannot tell you how many times we asked SeaWorld to comment and participate. When we think that things have news value, we'll cover them."

CNN's latest doc, Sole Survivor, debuted Thursday night to 701,000 viewers and 289,000 adults 25-54 -- a distant second for CNN films to Blackfish's 1.356 million and 472,000 in the demo.