After yesterday's "no comment" from Time Warner head Jeff Bewkes (actually, he said, "We'll have an announcement soon"), CNN has officially announced that Jeff Zucker has been hired to replace Jim Walton as head of CNN Worldwide.
Zucker, the onetime head of NBCUniversal, currently produces ABC Television Distribution's syndicated talk show Katie, starring former Today co-host Katie Couric. Zucker told reporters on Thursday morning that he will leave that show. "I'll be there for a few more weeks helping with the transition and I'll be leaving there by the middle of January," he said. Walton's departure was announced earlier this year; there's no word yet as to where he'll go, but expect him to land on his feet.
The network's new chief executive was, of course, cagey about specifics during the conference call, but he let slip a few interesting tidbits. Asked by Adweek if the network would be looking to compete with other networks besides Fox News and MSNBC, Zucker gave an unequivocal "Yes."
"We're not going to stray from the journalism and other hallmarks of CNN," he said, "but we live in a world where nonfiction programming comes in many forms, and there are many people doing nonfiction programming, and that's wider than the two networks you just mentioned." Phil Kent, head of Turner Broadcasting and Zucker's new boss, chimed in: "We've had shows about sports, we've had shows about technology, and some of that will be revisited," he said. "Look at a newspaper—it's got a lot of different sections."
"There's more to news than politics and war," Zucker added.
CNN has been plagued with ratings declines and a few embarrassing mistakes in the recent past (the network infamously misreported the Supreme Court's verdict on the Affordable Care Act), but its core business remains profitable, to the tune of a projected $600 million this year, according to Bewkes. The network has made some stabs at entertainment-focused programming, as well—a new show with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain will premiere on weekends next year—and its direction is very much up for debate as the company tries to balance the sobriety that has made its business model successful in the past with its foundering U.S. ratings.
Kent said the network had no wide-ranging layoffs planned but did caution that he didn't mean nobody would be leaving the company. "Could there be smart reallocation of resources?" he asked himself. "Absolutely."
"We're in a position where we can't just say, 'Everything we've been doing is working,' " Zucker said.
Kent, at times, seemed frustrated by the continued perception that CNN is in the hole when the network continues to be extremely profitable. CNN's international businesses, high carriage fees and Web presence make it plenty of money, but its prime compeitors are usually perceived to be Fox News Channel and MSNBC, the former consistently beating it by wide margins in the ratings, and the latter frequently doing the same despite a much smaller budget. That the three news organizations have different mandates was a point Zucker and Kent tried to drive home today.
Asked by one reporter about CNN's previously stated nonpartisan stance, Zucker said, "I agree with that." The network will continue to keep its editorializing from being the main focus, at least if Zucker's words this morning are any indication. "I think the important thing is that CNN remain editorially independent," he said. "I think that's going to be one of the top priorities that we outline."
And another? "To broaden the definition of what news is, and the understanding that our competition is not Fox or MSNBC."