CNN Boss Jeff Zucker on Beating Fox News: 'We Have Miles to Go'

Jeff Zucker Headshot - P 2012
Getty Images

Jeff Zucker Headshot - P 2012

In his first interview since taking over, the CNN Worldwide president talks up his morning show team, compliments "CBS This Morning" for "actually doing news," and supports "Reliable Sources" host Howard Kurtz.

CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker is not thinking about being the No. 1 cable news network – not yet, anyway. The original and once dominant cable news network was long ago surpassed by Fox News Channel. Asked how long it would take CNN to be No. 1 again, Zucker said: "Come back to me in three years. We have miles and miles to go. Fox is not only incredibly strong, they are incredibly dominant. It’s going to take a long time."

The comments came in a post press conference scrum Friday morning at Manhattan's Landmarc restaurant, where Zucker introduced new morning hosts Chris Cuomo, Kate Bolduan and Michaela Pereira to a small gathering of reporters.

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The event marked only the second time Zucker has spoken publicly about CNN since being handed the reins of the network last November. The new program – called New Day – will now bow June 17 instead of June 10 as previously announced. (The busy news cycle caused the delay.) And Zucker said his modest ratings goal for New Day is to best its predecessor on the network.

That should not be too difficult. Starting Point averaged only 234,000 viewers last year, a 10-year nadir for the time slot. But he stressed that New Day should not be judged on its first week or first month of ratings, as any new program takes time to jell. "Eventually we want to do better than previous incarnations [in the morning]. But we’re going to be very patient," he said.

Zucker said he talked to “a very long list of people” in his search for a co-host for Cuomo, who joined CNN in February after many years at ABC News. He tested five candidates with Cuomo, but settled on Bolduan, 29, after two screen tests with Cuomo, 42, revealed an immediate chemistry. (Cuomo described Bolduan as “an instant little sister”.)

“The thing we all know – and maybe recent events have reminded us – chemistry matters,” said Zucker, clearly referring to Ann Curry’s truncated run as co-host of NBC’s Today.

Curry was not among the candidates Zucker spoke to for the job, he said. But early on, he was known to have wanted CNN’s 7 p.m. host Erin Burnett to move to mornings. But when she proved resistant to the idea ("She preferred not to wake up at that hour," said Zucker), he moved on. “In the end, we both decided that it was probably more important for her and more important for the network that she stay where she was,” he said.

Cuomo said that it wasn’t “an easy choice” to leave ABC News and he admitted that he was concerned about losing the booking wars by going to a network with a smaller audience. But since he’s been at CNN, he and the network overall have landed several gets, including the daughter of Cleveland kidnapping suspect Ariel Castro, an in-depth interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan during the Papal Conclave and original ricin suspect Paul Kevin Curtis.

"I think the expectation that you're not going to be able to compete [at CNN] is demonstrably untrue," said Cuomo.

Of course, CNN has been under something of a media microscope since the high-profile Zucker took over -- and immediately began handing out pink slips to some longtime contributors. A mistake in the Boston marathon bombing coverage earned the network copious amounts of criticism, and Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz's errors in his coverage of gay NBA player Jason Collins spurred more negative headlines and an extraordinary public mea culpa on last Sunday's show. Zucker defended the network's Boston coverage. "A lot of people made [the same] mistake. We regretted it and we corrected it." As for Kurtz's future at CNN, Zucker added: "Reliable Sources will continue and Howie will continue to host that program."

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New Day executive producer Jim Murphy, a former senior executive producer of Good Morning America and multiple incarnations of morning programs at CBS News, said New Day would be a “super newsy morning program,” but one with a “new generation” of anchors. Noting that he produced three different morning shows in four years at CBS News, Murphy said New Day would be “looser, a bit more fun and hopefully we’ll be more interesting.”

The show will run three hours beginning at 6 a.m., an hour before the national news shows on the broadcast networks. The earlier start time reflects the modern reality in the lives of viewers who are working longer hours and have longer commutes. And there won’t be any of the usual morning TV “gimmicks” like cooking segments and outdoor concerts, said Zucker. Of course, CBS News is also fielding a hard news morning program devoid of TV chefs. “I give them a lot of credit,” said Zucker, referring to CBS This Morning. “I think they’re the program in the morning that actually does news. I think the difference for us is the slightly different tone that you’ll get from a new generation."