Jeff Zucker, the former NBC Universal chief who was named to lead Time Warner Inc. (TWX:US)’s CNN yesterday, said the network needs to broaden its news coverage and keep viewers longer to compete with Fox News and MSNBC.
“We need new and fresh programs,” Zucker, 47, said in an interview. “We need to improve the already good stuff we’ve got, and we need to find new programs that will make everything better.”
CNN, the network that invented 24-hour news, has struggled in recent years to find a formula to compete with News Corp. (NWSA:US)’s Fox News and Comcast Corp. (CMCSA:US)’s MSNBC, rivals that have risen in the ratings by relying on partisan commentary. Once the leader in cable news, CNN now has just a third of the viewers who tune in nightly to Fox News.
Outgoing CNN President Jim Walton said in July that he would step down, acknowledging the network needs “new thinking.” Walton, 54, started at CNN one year after it was founded by billionaire Ted Turner and helped build the channel into a dominant news organization.
CNN should re-emphasize breaking news and investigative reporting to counter its rivals’ focus on opinion and commentary, said Tom Johnson, who led the network in its heyday from 1990 to 2001. Zucker, he said, has a passion for news and will identify ways to hold onto audiences when current events aren’t so compelling.
“There is a real kick-ass mentality to Jeff that is a good quality to have for CNN at this point,” Johnson said in a telephone interview.
CNN misjudged the audience’s interest in lighter fare, said Porter Bibb, author of the 1993 book: “It Ain’t As Easy As It Looks: Ted Turner’s Amazing Story.”
The network, part of Time Warner Inc.’s Turner Broadcasting, “steered toward info-tainment and lost sight of what’s essential to its viewers, and that’s what’s happening now,” Bibb, managing partner at Mediatech Capital Partners LLC in New York, said in an interview.
“CNN needs intelligent investigative stories, thoughtful commentary and educational insights from primary sources who are at the center of what’s happening,” Bibb said.
Both executives agree CNN has the talent and resources to carry off a transformation with news at its core. Bibb would send program hosts Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper back out into the field, covering stories. Johnson would make greater use of the network’s 36 national and international bureaus and 900 worldwide affiliates to reassert CNN’s breadth of coverage.
“I would like to see the CNN as the New York Times of television news,” Johnson said.
For Zucker, becoming president of CNN represents a fresh start after his stormy tenure at NBC Universal, now controlled by Comcast. Under his management, NBC fell from first to last place in prime-time ratings. In hiring him, Time Warner Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bewkes cited his success running the “Today” show in the 1990s. It was the most-watched morning news program and the most profitable show on TV, CNN said.
It’s important to avoid the political strains of competitors, Zucker said. He said news coverage should include more than war and politics.
“We’ve got to remain true to the journalistic values that have always been the hallmark of CNN,” Zucker said.
Zucker, who will be based in New York, starts in January and will report to Phil Kent, CEO of Turner Broadcasting. The network operates 23 news and information businesses, including 4,000 employees, six websites, 14 channels, and two radio networks, according to its website.
From the start, Zucker was seen as the best person to chart that new course, Kent said in an interview.
“Jeff was the clear, best candidate, but I wanted to meet with a lot of people,” Kent said. “Still, I always knew Jeff was the right person to get. What impressed me from almost the first time we met is how passionate he was about journalism.”
In 1992, at age 26, Zucker became the youngest-ever executive producer of the “Today” show, a job he held for almost eight years.
Before taking over NBC’s entertainment business in 2000, Zucker served as executive producer for coverage of events, including the 2000 election night telecast, the 1993 and 1997 presidential inaugurations and the Persian Gulf War.
As head of entertainment, and later overseeing NBC Universal’s broadcast network, film studio, theme parks and cable channels, he struggled to develop prime-time programs that could recapture the success of “Friends” and “Seinfeld” in the 1990s. NBC last led the audience ratings in 2002, according to Nielsen data.
His decision in 2009 to put comedian Jay Leno in prime time backfired and led to protests from NBC’s affiliate TV stations. Zucker was replaced as CEO when Comcast took over in 2011.
Since 2011, Zucker has been executive producer of “Katie,” the daytime talk show of Katie Couric, the former anchor of “CBS Evening News” and “Today.”
Despite ratings gains at Fox News and MSNBC, CNN is still a profitable business and stands to make more than $600 million this year, Bewkes said at Time Warner’s annual meeting.
Time Warner shares (TWX:US) rose 0.1 percent to $47.04 yesterday in New York. The stock has gained 30 percent this year.
Advertisers still see CNN as a leading broadcaster in cable news, according to Todd Gordon, managing director at Magna Global, the media investment arm of advertising holding company Interpublic Group Inc. (IPG:US) The network needs to demonstrate it can keep up with the changing attitudes and appetites of viewers today.
“It’s an incredibly competitive and quickly changing news environment,” Gordon said in an interview. “He’s the one who has to figure that out, of course, but it’s not going to be easy.”
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