Jeff Zucker on His New CNN Job: 'If We Don't Try Something Different, We Won't Succeed'

Phil Kent and Jeff Zucker

"There’s no doubt that I made some mistakes in the entertainment world and I own those," said the former NBCUniversal CEO, "But I'm really excited to return to news."

Jeff Zucker’s mandate as incoming president of CNN Worldwide is to improve the domestic network’s programming without sacrificing the journalistic ideals of the CNN brand. Pronouncing himself “humbled” to be leading CNN, the former NBCUniversal chief vowed that the network -- which has seen its viewership decline as Fox News and MSNBC have built franchises and found ratings success with ideological primetime lineups – would remain “editorially independent.”

“CNN stands for journalism unlike almost anyone else,” Zucker said during a conference call with reporters Thursday. “Obviously CNN, like all legacy news businesses, faces challenges in the way consumers get their news and information. The challenge is to make [CNN] relevant, vibrant and exciting in a world where consumers are getting their news in real time."

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Zucker would not talk about specific shows or on-air talent -- not even to say which he likes. But Phil Kent, chairman and CEO of CNN parent Turner Broadcasting System, conceded there was much room for improvement at the third-place cable news network. And he said he is tasked Zucker with getting “the best performance out of the talent we already have.”

“And I would say that with rare exceptions, [with] most of the talent here there is opportunity to be even better,” he added.

Certainly Zucker has his work cut out for him. The first and once-leading cable news channel saw its audience dwindle to a 21-year low for the third quarter this year. Of course, November was a healthy month for the network thanks to the presidential election, Hurricane Sandy and the latest conflict between Israel and Palestine. In total day, CNN was up double digits in total viewers and its target audience of viewers for the month. In weekday primetime, the network was up 72 percent among total viewers (to 1.2 million) and 131 percent in the demo (to 494,000) while several programs including Piers Morgan Tonight, Anderson Cooper 360 and Erin Burnett Outfront posted their best ratings in more than a year. CNN will continue to build its business around big news events, said Zucker, but the programming has to be better and broader.

"News is more than just politics and war," said Zucker. 

He conceded that primetime is one of his “top priorities” at CNN but stressed that in a media universe where news and nonfiction programming comes in many different forms and on myriad delivery systems, Fox News and MSNBC are not the competition -- though he admitted he wants to beat both networks in the ratings. It would be a “mistake” to “allow our competition to be defined only by the partisan political networks,” said Zucker.

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"We have to remain true to the journalistic values that have always been a part of CNN,” he added. “We’re in a position where we can’t say everything that we’ve been doing is working, and if we don’t try some different things -- within the legacy of CNN -- we won’t succeed.”

Zucker has a knack for picking on-air talent. As executive producer of NBC's Today show, he paired Katie Couric with Bryant Gumbel and tapped Matt Lauer when Gumbel left. When Couric departed in 2006 for the CBS Evening News, he lured Meredith Vieira from ABC’s The View. All of which contributed to Today's 16-year morning news winning streak that was snapped in April by ABC’s Good Morning America. And he’ll no doubt examine CNN’s morning lineup, which at times is bested by sister network HLN. Kent characterized morning host Soledad O’Brien, who worked at NBC News before joining CNN in 2003, a “fabulous journalist.” But he added that CNN has the opportunity to be doing a morning show that is “different than its cable competitors and different than the three broadcast networks.”

Zucker will have oversight of CNN/U.S., CNN International. and HLN. Unlike his predecessor Jim Walton, who worked out of CNN’s Atlanta headquarters, Zucker will be based in New York. But Kent said that does not portend a reallocation of significant resources from Atlanta to New York. Zucker will remain as executive producer at Couric’s syndicated talk show until the middle of January and will begin his duties at CNN thereafter.

The search for a replacement for Walton, who announced in July that he would step down when his contract concludes in December, began in earnest after Labor Day. Zucker’s stewardship of NBC’s news brands were what drew Kent to Zucker.

And Zucker himself admitted that the "most rewarding years" of his career were as a journalist.

"I continued to be involved in the news business long after I left the Today show and had the responsibility for the entire company," said Zucker. "And in some respects, this is a return to a daily form where I felt most comfortable and had some really successful years. There’s no doubt that I made some mistakes in the entertainment world, and I own those. But I feel really excited about being able to return to news."

Kent asserted that Zucker's missteps while running the entertainment division -- most glaringly the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien debacle -- were “just not relevant.”

“Whether Jeff Zucker was the greatest head of the NBC Entertainment business was irrelevant to my search,” said Kent. “I was looking for somebody who was a good leader, who people enjoyed working for, who really understood the news business and what it meant to have journalists working for you and what it [took] to turn great journalism into great television programming. If you really look at his background as a hands-on overseer of a portfolio of all the different NBC News brands in both cable and broadcast, it’s pretty easy to figure out why I wanted him to do this job.”

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