Jeff Zucker's CNN Scorecard: The Changes So Far (Analysis)

Jeff Zucker CNN Illustration - H 2013
Illustration by: John Ueland

Jeff Zucker CNN Illustration - H 2013

The ex-NBCU CEO was tapped to turn the network around last November — so far documentaries and reality shows are working, but the morning show and primetime are works in progress.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Jeff Zucker was named president of the troubled CNN in November 2012, he noted that its competition not only was Fox News and MSNBC but "anybody that competes for eyeballs" in the "nonfiction" space. The key, he said, is to "broaden [the] definition of news."

A year later, Zucker is succeeding in that mandate; reality shows and documentaries are bringing new viewers to CNN. But its bread-and-butter programming still is a work in progress. And recent ratings lows -- October coverage of the Obamacare website mess gave CNN its worst weekly tune-in in more than a year with only 95,000 viewers in the critical 25-to-54 demographic -- have underscored the challenges of creating appointment TV out of the daily churn of the news cycle. While boots-on-the-ground reporting during breaking news events including the typhoon in the Philippines, has produced ratings upticks, the network's efforts to "eventize" stories like the Carnival "poop cruise" have challenged its storied brand.

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"It's a new world," says Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. "And it's not a new world because of Fox News. It's a new world because of the Internet and social media. You can't just do what you tried to do, only better. You actually have to recognize that you've been digitally disrupted. You cannot be as fast as Twitter. And if you try, you'll just start telling people things that are not true." The answer, suggests Rosenstiel, "may be book better guests, be a little more contemplative, be slower, offer people something more."

Zucker and his team, including senior vp Amy Entelis, who came to CNN from ABC News, so far have brought in several midcareer anchors. Not coincidentally, many of them have been from ABC News, including Jake Tapper (4 p.m. program The Lead), Chris Cuomo (morning show New Day) and Bill Weir (who in October left ABC's Nightline). In September, CNN bowed a rebooted Crossfire with conservatives Newt Gingrich and S.E. Cupp and progressives Van Jones and Stephanie Cutter. Since its launch, Crossfire is down 33 percent in the demo compared to the same period last year, when the Situation Room was airing at 6:30 p.m. 

For the third-quarter ratings period, all networks are down in primetime compared with the same period last year, when the run-up to the presidential election spurred tune-in. Before Zucker's arrival, CNN suffered a 21-year ratings low for second-quarter 2012. But CNN is up for the year in total day (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) in the demo and is expected to finish 2013 ahead of MSNBC in that daypart.

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Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown is CNN's No. 1 show, averaging 338,000 in the demo. Morgan Spurlock's Inside Man also has performed well. And Anderson Cooper 360 is CNN's top-rated franchise, averaging 211,000 demo viewers at 8 p.m.

But the morning show New Day -- Zucker's signature programming move since assuming oversight in January -- has yet to move the needle; the show is flat year-over-year in the demo. And a sponsored segment during which anchors Cuomo, Kate Bolduan and Michaela Pereira walk from their desk to the couch as a commercial airs has been mocked by Jon Stewart.

Zucker, 48, is known as a micromanager, though many say his hands-on approach has been a welcome change at CNN. While unscripted fare and Thursday documentaries such as Blackfish and The Sixties are doing well (CNN plans to air 10 original docs next year), Zucker has yet to reinvent primetime -- which is key to ad revenue. (CNN is projected to net $293 million in ad revenue this year, says SNL Kagan, down about 10 percent compared with 2012.)

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Anderson Cooper, who fielded interest from NBC News, has finalized a deal to stay at CNN and also has re-signed with CBS News' 60 Minutes. Piers Morgan's three-year deal was extended into 2014, say sources. But Morgan, whose interview show seems to ebb and flow with the caliber of his guests, might not stay past then. There has been rampant speculation that Zucker would make a run at Katie Couric or even Matt Lauer. Couric's daytime show is all but certain to end its run this season, and she is nearing a deal with Yahoo. But, emphasizes a CNN source, "There have been no conversations with Couric, and there won't be." Lauer would be a big get for Zucker; the two are friendly and were spotted chatting at Morgan's recent book-launch party. But Lauer is committed to NBC's Today until 2015.

"Give Jeff a pass for a year of learning and assessing and trying stuff," says an insider. "Does he learn from trying stuff? We'll see."