Jeff Zucker Defends CNN Coverage Choices, Talks Primetime Plans

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Jeff Zucker

Speaking at a Tuesday conference, the cable news topper touts royal baby web traffic, assesses the current situation at NBC's "Today" and compares recent human interest stories like the stranded Carnival cruise ship to 1987's "Baby Jessica."

For the new CNN, ratings and criticism have often come hand-in-hand since Jeff Zucker took the wheel at the start of the year. But boosted coverage for stories like the stranded Carnival Triumph, the George Zimmerman trial and, just this week, the birth of the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William's baby boy are nothing new for CNN.

"One of the most important stories in the history of CNN was a little girl stuck in a well in a Texas," Zucker told a crowd at Tuesday's Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo.

He was speaking, of course, of Jessica McClure -- the 18-month-old who spent 58 hours at the bottom of a 22-foot-deep well, while a relatively young CNN reaped the ratings benefits of around-the-clock coverage of the rescue.

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"We're all covering all of that other news," Zucker added. We're still all over what's going on in Washington and what's going on in Egypt."

Zucker was quick to point out that criticism of the Zimmerman coverage has diminished in the wake of the controversial verdict and fall-out, but said that wall-to-wall updates on February's now-infamous "poop cruise" remains a subject of frequent mocking.

"I have said many times that if 3000 people were trapped in an office building Chicago without power or water, every network, station, newspaper would be covering it non-stop," he said, adding that he thinks other networks envied CNN's foresight to get in on the story early.

Early numbers for royal baby coverage, Zucker noted, were good and web traffic was even better: "We can argue all day long how important that story is, but we look at what happened yesterday and the digital numbers were extraordinary."

Day-to-day programming remains a slower evolution for CNN. Zucker expressed approval of big launches like The Lead with Jake Tapper and New Day and said that part of the Crossfire revival was to bring conservative voices to the network many might argue has skewed liberal. He called panelist Newt Gingrich "one of the most intellectual conservative thinkers int he world."

Up next, CNN will turn to primetime, where Zucker says the 10 p.m. hour will likely be the first to get a makeover. "The next thing we're going to do is look at primetime," he added. "We haven't had a 10 p.m. show in a long time."

On the subject of competitors, Zucker said that he's taking the upcoming launch of Al Jazeera America seriously and, though he wouldn't get too specific, he did share some words on the struggles of his former NBC morning flagship, Today.

"I think the key to all of those programs is obviously the chemistry between the people who are on the show, and I think that's what makes or breaks those shows," he said. "Today has had a difficult year and a half. It brought on a lot of it on itself, and that's the worst kind of mistake. It's not about tinkering with the rundown or which story you do first or second. Those shows are about are those people you want to watch. And that's where you start."