Jeff Zucker Talks Trump TV and CNN's Ratings Hot Streak: We've "Outshined Everybody"

Jeff Zucker - Headshot - H - 2016
Courtesy of CNN

Less than two weeks shy of the election, Zucker speaks with THR about his network's winning strategy, narrowing the Fox News gap, his post-election plan and what might happen to all those political pundits.

When Jeff Zucker calls 2016 the "best year ever" for cable news, he's not being hyperbolic.

Thanks to unusually high interest in the presidential race and reality TV star turned Republican nominee Donald Trump, aggregate primetime viewership is up 50 percent, and showings among adults 25-54 are up 55 percent. But with all the widespread wealth, the cable chief has a unique excuse to brag. Zucker heads into his first presidential election as CNN Worldwide president with cable news' most appealing ratings narrative.

Not only did CNN wrap October with another win among adults 25-54, the group that cable news advertisers buy against, the network just concluded its first four-week streak atop its key demographic in 15 years. The development further tightens its 2016 gap with leader Fox News Channel to just 6 percent in primetime and 14 percent in total day. Both CNN and MSNBC continue to trail Fox News more distantly in the total viewership race, but Zucker emphasizes that metric is not a present concern.

Year-to-date, CNN is up 90 percent in the key demo during primetime with an average 436,000 adults 25-54 tuning in nightly. Its a welcome change of pace from when Zucker inherited the 36-year-old cable brand in 2013, just months after it had hit two-decade lows. 

Ratings aren't the only numbers that bode well for CNN. Last week's news of AT&T's proposed $85.4 billion acquisition of CNN parent Time Warner highlighted the network's 2016 fiscal successes. Sources confirm that the cable news network has seen a $100 million boost from forecasted yearly revenue, a stat first reported by NPR, thanks to its election coverage.

With less than two weeks to go before the big day, Zucker spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the hot streak — and how he plans to continue the momentum, with or without Donald Trump.

Four years into your tenure, CNN has its best ratings narrative in over a decade.

This is the best year in the history of cable news … for everybody. We've all benefited. Within that best year ever, I think CNN has outshined everybody by taking a significant share of the audience. In terms of demos, CNN is closer to Fox than we've been at any point in 15 years, and we have a bigger lead over MSNBC than we've had in the last 13 years. It gives you a real sense of what a fantastic year it's been.

How have things picked up closer to the election?

With regard to the last four weeks, that's a testimony and a snapshot of this entire year. CNN has done something it hasn't done in 15 years. There's been a number of significant events over the last month — the debates, the Al Smith dinner, the hurricane — that signal that when it really matters, people come to CNN.

You mention CNN growing its share of the cable news audience. Can you speak a little more about that?

More people have come to watch cable news this year than any year ever. Disproportionately, they [in the key demo] have come to CNN over other networks. Fox has 36 percent of the primetime audience, and CNN has 34 percent. That's more than CNN has had since 2001. A year ago, Fox had 41 percent and CNN had 29 percent. We've gone up, and they've come down, so, in effect, we've stolen their five share points. But again, everybody is having their best year ever, and I want to give them credit.

Your competitors are now plugging their successes with total viewership. How important is that number for your purposes?

It's not a business story. It's more about bragging rights in the press, but I understand that. People go to a story that they need to go to when the real story doesn't fit. And it's fine. It's also a good story for us. This is CNN's best year in total viewers ever. We're closer to Fox than we've been in eight years, and we've got the biggest lead we've had on MSNBC in eight years. It's not quite as dramatic as the demo story, but we're in a great competitive position. But it's not how we run our business, so it's not the number we look at.

Have you noticed any audience trends from the nights or days the last six months when the election was not the focus of coverage?

There haven't been that many days when the election hasn't been the focus. When it hasn't been, there was either another major breaking news story or there was nothing at all — and that's where our original series fill the void. That's part of our strategy. We acknowledge there's no way 2017 is going to be 2016. It's just not possible. Audiences will clearly not be what they have been, but we feel good because we're starting from a higher place.

What specific strategies do you have for after the election?

Keep in mind that prior to this year, 2008 was the biggest year in cable news history. Second to that was 2009. We do think there will be continued interest next year. But in terms of what do we do moving forward, we have a new philosophy and strategy that we've employed for the last three years of going all-in on the bigger stories in a way that our competitors can't match because of our global resources. We also have our original series. Next year we'll have more than 12 and six CNN films.

With the many election commentators you've hired, particularly [former Trump campaign manager] Corey Lewandowski, is there a plan for how to include them moving forward?

We're going to continue to employ a number of commentators going forward. I don't think it will be at the same level that we've had this year, but we'll begin to assess that after the election.

Trump has been a huge boon to ratings, but he is trailing in the polls. Have you had discussions about how and how much he'll be covered if he loses?

We're not in the business of making any predictions to what's going to happen in the next 13 days. We'll see what happens, and then we'll make decisions after that. I can't make any predictions.

Do you have anything to say about the widely circulating $100 million in extra 2016 revenue that NPR reported?

I'm not going comment on that other than to say that NPR is a fine journalistic organization.

What are your impressions of the AT&T-Time Warner deal and your meeting with CEO Randall Stephenson?

We're excited to see what comes in the future. Beyond that, we're just busy covering the last 13 days of the election.

Do you have any thoughts on Trump TV?

I've seen a little bit of what they're doing. The beauty of the internet is that anybody can be a broadcaster now. Again, I think the future of that depends on the next 13 days.