Jeff Zucker to become president of CNN Worldwide, Jim Walton steps down in Dec.
Zucker was praised for "Today" show success and criticized for NBC entertainment ratings
He vows a commitment to avoid turning CNN into an ideological network
He says beating Fox and MSNBC is one of his goals
Jeff Zucker wants to inject more “passion” into CNN. He wants to help the network “broaden the definition of what news is.” And he wants to beat Fox News Channel and MSNBC in the ratings.
In his first remarks after the Thursday announcement that he will become president of CNN Worldwide, Zucker – one of the country’s best-known media executives – offered those bits of his vision. But he spent more time emphasizing what he won’t do: try to turn CNN into an ideological network.
“It’s important (CNN) stay true to standards of great journalism,” Zucker told reporters on a telephone conference call. But “just because you’re not partisan doesn’t mean that you can’t be exciting.
“We need more passion and more fans – and that shouldn’t be mistaken for partisanship.”
Zucker once earned credit for skyrocketing ratings at the “Today” show. He later was blamed for NBC’s entertainment programming dropping from first to fourth in the ratings. His stance that CNN can succeed without venturing off of its news mission is in keeping with what CNN leaders have said for years amid well-known and widely diagnosed ratings woes.
When asked to name something new he might do, Zucker declined to be specific.
“Those ideas have to come in due time,” he said.
He emphasized that CNN is successful in numerous ways, and should not be judged by the ratings of its U.S. TV network alone. Still, when pressed to give a yes or no answer, he said that beating Fox and MSNBC regularly in the ratings is one of his goals.
Taking questions from the media Thursday was just a taste of what’s to come for Zucker.
In assuming the reins of CNN from outgoing president Jim Walton, Zucker steps back into the glare of the media spotlight – a position he knows well.
His rise through the ranks at a relatively young age in the 1990s led many to label him a “boy wonder.”
CNN is looking for a repeat performance.
“Jeff’s experience as a news executive is unmatched for its breadth and success,” Phil Kent, chairman and CEO of CNN parent company Turner Broadcasting System, said in a statement Thursday. “He built and sustained the number-one brand in morning news, and under his watch NBC’s signature news programming set a standard for quality and professionalism. As a programmer, a brand-builder and a leader, he will bring energy and new thinking to CNN.”
Zucker said in a statement he’s “thrilled to join the distinguished team of journalists across the worldwide platforms of CNN.”
“The global reach and scale of the CNN brand is unparalleled in all of news. Outside of my family and the Miami Dolphins, there is nothing I am as passionate about as journalism… I’m excited to return to daily newsgathering and compelling storytelling in a place that values those above all else.”
“It’s hard to imagine a candidate to lead CNN with a better all-around resume,” said Howard Kurtz, host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” which analyzes the media. “The guy has news in his veins, made the ‘Today’ show a smashing success and ran a major network. His stumbles were mainly on the entertainment side, which isn’t what CNN does.”
Admiration for Zucker took a big hit over the last decade when he took over NBC’s entertainment programming. As NPR put it, he “drove NBC’s ratings and reputation off a cliff.”
“There’s no doubt that I made mistakes in the entertainment world, and I own those,” he said Thursday. “But I feel really excited about being able to return to daily news both on television and in digital.”
“There’s a lot of people in the industry that have a lot of very strong opinions about him – in both directions,” said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “He is kind of a celebrity choice.”
Rick Edmonds, media industry analyst for the Poynter Institute, a non-profit school focusing on journalism, told CNN the Zucker hire “makes a lot of sense.”
“Moving to a news or news and opinion operation would, I think, play to his strengths,” said Edmonds. “And he’s a youngish guy with lots of energy. So, why not?”
The 47 year-old married father of four has survived cancer twice – an experience that, he has said, “prepared me for almost anything.”
Thompson, of the Bleier Center, told CNN before Zucker’s news conference that he expects “we’re probably going to see some of the aesthetics of the primetime shows in the other 24-hour networks be applied to CNN” – including more opinion talk. Thompson also expects more elements of the kind of entertainment programming that was part of the “Today” show mix, along with hard news.
While Zucker stressed his plans to stick to CNN’s fundamentals, Kent – who joined Zucker on the conference call – added that the network is looking at expanding programming outside of traditional hard news. “We’ve had shows about sports, fashion, technology,” Kent said. “And some of that is going to be revisited.”
In October, as speculation about the possible hire was growing, Los Angeles Times writer Joe Flint argued that “while Zucker easily has the ability to pump new life into CNN, he is such a high-profile executive that his hiring could create more problems than it would solve.”
Walton, who announced in July that he would depart at the end of the year, has presided over the company from its headquarters in Atlanta. Zucker will continue to live in New York.
Flint predicted that would mean Zucker spending “half his time on a corporate jet instead of being in the trenches with the team that so desperately needs a leader.”
Flint also questioned whether Zucker would see CNN as a stepping stone to a higher position, and be focused on a “next land grab.”
Kent said Thursday that Zucker’s overseeing CNN from New York will be no obstacle at all, and noted that many CNN/U.S. programs originate from New York.
And Zucker said he looks forward to reporting to Kent.
Andrew Kirell, on the blog Mediaite, said in an October article that while Zucker’s coming to CNN would likely stir controversy among his critics, his “failures” at NBC were “far more widely covered than his enormous success in leading NBC’s cable assets – a record which would be directly relevant to the CNN job. On the news side, he can be largely credited with guiding MSNBC out of the gutter and establishing it as an actual competitor to Fox and ultimately beating CNN.”
Zucker will supervise the heads of CNN’s various divisions, including CNN/U.S., HLN, CNN International and CNN.com.
His entry into the Time Warner corporate family is sure to create a stir for media watchers for another reason – one that has nothing to do with TV news.
Conan O’Brien has a show on TBS, CNN’s corporate cousin. Zucker famously evicted O’Brien from NBC’s 11:35 p.m. slot after just seven months hosting the “Tonight Show.”
While it could make for an awkward moment at Zucker’s welcome party, the O’Brien saga – which involved removing, then restoring, Jay Leno to the time slot – also highlights what is at times one of Zucker’s strengths: a willingness to think outside the box.
“I do think that taking a risk and trying something new is something that we should always be willing to do,” he once told CNBC.
Zucker has a publicly avowed fan in Piers Morgan, who hosts a primetime CNN program. “I love Jeff Zucker. I wouldn’t be here without him,” Morgan recently told The Hollywood Reporter.
Morgan was under contract with NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” when he got the CNN offer.
“Everybody had said to him, ‘Don’t let him go,’ and, ‘Why do we want to share our talent with CNN?’ And he said, ‘I get it. This is your dream job, and I’m going to let you do it,’” Morgan said, adding that Zucker is “a very capable executive.”
Zucker became executive producer of “Today” at the age of 26, in 1992.
“I worked really hard through a very tumultuous time at the ‘Today’ show,” Zucker said in a talk posted on YouTube this year by IMG Speakers.
“Under his leadership at ‘Today,’ the program was the nation’s most-watched morning news show and the most profitable program on television,” says Zucker’s official biography on the GE website, from his days at NBC. “Zucker has also served as executive producer of NBC’s coverage of several major events, including the ‘Decision 2000’ election night broadcast, the 1993 and 1997 presidential inaugurations and the Persian Gulf War.”
In 2000, Zucker was named president of NBC Entertainment. He then rose through the ranks, becoming president of the network’s Entertainment, News & Cable Group and, in 2005, CEO of the NBC Universal Television Group.
As NBC’s ratings fell, many critics blamed Zucker, with some chalking it up to his record developing sitcoms.
Still, in 2007, Zucker was again promoted, becoming CEO of NBC Universal.
Zucker left NBC in 2010, after the company merged with Comcast.
He launched Katie Couric’s talk show this fall. Entertainment Weekly reported in October that the program was among the new talk shows “leading” in the ratings, but The Hollywood Reporter said “Couric’s middling ratings and topics” had “affiliates grumbling.”
A Harvard graduate, Zucker showed an interest in journalism during his college years. He was editor of the Crimson, the school’s daily newspaper.
O’Brien at the time ran the Lampoon, the school’s humor magazine – and Zucker once had O’Brien arrested over a prank.
“Zucker is one of the most competitive guys you’ll ever meet,” Fortune writer Patricia Sellers said in 2010.
Zucker will now bring that competitive instinct and willingness to take risks to CNN – along with lessons learned.
“The challenge Zucker faces is boosting CNN’s ratings during those long periods when there’s no major breaking story, and creating a more clearly defined brand for the network,” said Kurtz. “He certainly has the drive and experience to lead an overhaul as CNN tries to compete with its more ideological cable rivals.”