“We’ve got to remain true to the journalistic values that have always been the hallmark of CNN,” Jeff Zucker told reporters on Thursday, shortly after it was announced that has been chosen as the new president of Turner Broadcasting’s CNN Worldwide (NYSE: TWX).
On its face, the comment almost plays as if CNN’s feisty incoming chief weren’t planning a major shake-up at the world’s first cable news network, but of course nothing could be further from the truth. CNN has been battered in the ratings for so long it’s almost impossible to remember when it wasn’t eating the dust kicked up by Fox News (Nasdaq: NWSA) and MSNBC (Nasdaq: CMCSA). It suffers from an identity problem, or rather a nonidentity problem: Neither right nor left, the network has tried in earnest to straddle the line of presumed neutrality, even as much of its audience has grown to see “journalistic values” as being incompatible with 24-hour cable news. And yet if it throws the baby out with the bathwater to become more like its partisan counterparts, it will only alienate what’s left of its audience. In other words, CNN needs a miracle worker and fast.
Enter Zucker, the former wunderkind of NBCUniversal, who at the age of 26 became the youngest-ever executive producer of the “Today” show. Under his tenure, "Today" became the most-watched morning show, due in large part to Zucker's knack for personality-driven news. Before long, he climbed the ladder to become president and CEO of the company.
He also fell from grace just as fast, ousted after the disastrous decision to move Jay Leno to the 10 p.m. time slot when Conan O’Brien took his place at “The Tonight Show.” Now, at the age of 47, seasoned and scuffed up, he’s taking on the challenge of turning CNN around, and some analysts think he’s the best man -- if not the only man -- for the job.
“Zucker’s successful ‘Today Show’ tenure was marked by the balance of likeable personalities with a credible hard-news presentation, which we think is a formula CNN could use,” wrote Tim Nollen, an analyst with Macquarie, in a research note on Wednesday. “A successful turnaround would help CNN join sister networks TBS and TNT in reviving Turner’s ratings.”
But while CNN needs a shake-up, it needs a measured one if it wants to retain what might be its biggest asset: credibility. In polls, it is often cited as the most trusted of the cable news networks in times of major news events, and ratings reflect that. Viewership spiked during CNN’s coverage of Hurricane Sandy and the Israel-Gaza conflict, while prime time commentators Piers Morgan and Erin Burnett have recently been logging some of their highest ratings ever.
Tom Johnson, the former CNN president who led the network during its 1990s heyday, told Bloomberg Businessweek that he would like to see CNN position itself against its competitors not through bigger personalities, but via more breaking news and investigative journalism, perhaps even becoming a kind of “New York Times of TV news.” However, he added that there is a “kick-ass mentality” to Zucker that could be very good for the network.
Zucker, meanwhile, has boldly promised not just to retool CNN, but to redefine the definition of cable news completely. In January, when he takes over for longtime President Jim Walton, he will almost instantly begin implementing new ideas -- perhaps even reality shows and other non-news programming, as some reports have suggested. “We need new and fresh programs,” Zucker told reporters on Thursday. “We need to improve the already good stuff we’ve got, and we need to find new programs that will make everything better.”
Will everything really be better or just different? That remains to be seen.