A version of this story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
In May 2014, CNN’s daytime viewership fell to third place behind MSNBC and, worse, fourth behind sister network HLN in the critical 25-to-54 demo. The network was being hammered for its nonstop coverage of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, complete with cockpit simulators, elaborate animation and theories about black holes.
A year later, CNN has posted the most growth in cable news; for the first quarter of 2015, the network was up 11 percent in total viewers and 7 percent among the demo in primetime, where the nets earn a big chunk of ad dollars. It was CNN’s fourth consecutive primetime quarterly win over MSNBC. Fox News still is the undisputed cable news leader and scored a coup with Megyn Kelly‘s June 3 and 5 sit-downs with the Duggar family that lured 3.1 million and 2.2 viewers, respectively. But more than two years after Jeff Zucker took the reins as president of CNN Worldwide, the U.S. network is reversing the negative headlines, which now cling to NBCUniversal’s MSNBC.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” says Zucker, 50, sitting in his fifth-floor office in CNN’s headquarters in New York’s Columbus Circle. “We’ve got a lot of momentum.”
Granted, a year ago CNN was near a nadir, and cable news was down across the board in 2014. But the network is enjoying its largest portion of the cable news audience (26 percent among viewers 25-to-54) since 2008. Primetime is up. CNN’s 9 p.m. offerings — which include unscripted series, films and documentaries — are beating Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. CNN Tonight with Don Lemon (whom Zucker concedes has become a “lightning rod”) is up more than 100 percent year-over-year. And Zucker’s signature program, the morning show New Day, which turns 2 on June 17, is riding that ratings uptick. The program has bested MSNBC’s Morning Joe for 11 consecutive months in the news demo and posted a 50 percent gain in May, while Morning Joe has placed fourth in the demo since last summer.
“CNN was not really a place people went to in the morning,” says anchor Chris Cuomo, who came to CNN in 2013 from ABC News, where he appeared on the network’s Good Morning America. “The boss,” he adds, referring to Zucker, “believed that it was really important, not just from a business perspective but from an editorial perspective, that we set the agenda in the morning.”
Morning Joe has bested New Day among total viewers for the last three months and still beats CNN in the demo in New York and Washington, D.C. — “barely,” Zucker adds — prompting host Joe Scarborough to defend his show on Twitter as the one preferred by “influencers.” Retorts Zucker: “That’s not how the game is played; that’s not how [TV] is sold. And if that’s what you’re talking about, it’s probably about time to start getting your résumé ready.”
Jabs aside, CNN is on track to earn $1.16 billion in operating revenue in 2015, according to SNL Kagan, including $330 million in ad revenue and $747.3 million in affiliate fees. It earns 64 cents per subscriber each month, up from 61 cents in 2014, says Kagan. (Turner Broadcasting on June 8 revealed Courageous, an in-house studio to produce branded content for CNN and HLN, though execs stress that advertising will be labeled clearly as such.) “They are tracking much better than last year,” says Kagan’s Derek Baine.
Independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall long has predicted the demise of 24-hour cable news networks as coverage moves online and to mobile devices. But Tyndall notes that CNN probably is “better prepared to be that thing than anybody else — better even than Vice.” Indeed, CNN is the top digital news destination, notching 1.4 billion desktop and mobile views in April 2015, according to comScore, and edging out Yahoo News by 3 percent. And MSNBC’s sharp decline has been, in part, CNN’s gain. “They don’t even have to reinvent the wheel,” says Tyndall. “They can just do what they know how to do, and they’re going to pick up people who are leaving MSNBC in droves.”
Zucker sees the 2016 presidential election as an opportunity. He has hired 40 political reporters, including Jeff Zeleny, formerly of The New York Times and ABC News, and The Washington Post‘s Nia-Malika Henderson. And he likes to cite a June 1 Pew Research Center study that gave CNN high marks among millennials and members of so-called Generation X. “We are the most trusted brand in news among every demographic age group, so even when it comes to politics, people will come to us,” he says.
Zucker, who shot to prominence as the 26-year-old executive producer of NBC’s Today before rising to CEO of NBC Universal, has refocused the troops in his role at CNN. He’ll offer opinions on elements as seemingly minute as Chyrons and graphics. And, says New Day co-anchor Alisyn Camerota, who came to CNN last year after 16 years at Fox News, it’s not unusual for him to be in the control room during the broadcast, which begins at 6 a.m. “Where I’ve worked before, interviews are three-and-a-half to four minutes — that’s it and you’re out, even if you’re in a moment,” she says. “Here, I’ll be in the middle of an interview and I’ll hear the control room in my earpiece, ‘Jeff is here; Jeff says keep going.'”
The Zucker strategy has been to double down on news during the day, flooding the zone on such big stories as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Ferguson, the Baltimore unrest and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. CNN sees its audience surge during news events; it bested Fox News in the demo for some Ferguson coverage.
A primetime lineup that includes documentaries (Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman‘s The Seventies) and reality series (Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown) has been fodder for competitors. Fox News CEO Roger Ailes told THR last year that CNN is “out of the news business.”
Zucker laughs at the rhetoric: “It’s absurd on its face. The fact is, we’re doing more news than we’ve ever done. We’re doing more news than anybody else. Part of our strategy has been to mount series programming because you can’t exclusively rely on just what you’d classify as traditional news. And who’s copying us? Fox.”
He’s referring to Fox News host Bill O’Reilly‘s Legends & Lies – which had a ten-week run earlier this year – and O’Reilly’s Killing movies, which are produced for Fox-owned National Geographic but also air on Fox News. Adds Zucker: “So not only are they doing series, they’re doing scripted series. They’re doing it with actors. And the fact is, they’ve gone further out of the news business than we have.”