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Zucker's Changes at CNN Are Already Bearing Fruit

Walls between shows come down

Anthony Bourdain's new travel series, Parts Unknown, emphasizes the personal over the political.

The good ship CNN is riding a little higher on the waves. After months of plummeting ratings and a high-profile game of C-suite musical chairs, the original cable news network is catching up to its competitors in the core demo and showing significant year-over-year gains. And while a fall resurrection of Crossfire and the June launch of the morning show New Day are drawing ink, president Jeff Zucker is making other, more subtle changes, too.

For one thing, CNN’s anchors are appearing on each other’s shows. Once a mainstay on ABC’s Good Morning America, Nancy Grace of CNN sibling network HLN is making fewer guest stints at GMA and appearing on New Day frequently. As one insider put it, the walls seem to be coming down between the shows in a way that never happened under former honcho Jim Walton—and there are more pilots for new shows in the works.

The website, too, has changed. CNN.com now features many more “throws” to the linear channel, and for its part, the network is picking a lot more nonpolitical stories (like the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma) and sticking with them longer. “They’ve always had the muscle,” the source said. “They just haven’t always used it in the right way.”

“One of the things we’ve heard from Jeff is that he wants to see us broaden the definition of news,” said CNN D.C. bureau chief Sam Feist. Hard-core newshounds at CNN are happier with the flexibility they’re being given to pursue high-profile stories, he said. “In April, when the North Korea story was becoming more important because they’d begun to bring new missiles online, we began to do a nightly special on North Korea,” said Feist.

And nonpolitical news has its rewards, inasmuch as the catalyst for CNN’s rebound may well have been the notorious “Poop Cruise.” While critics snarked about CNN’s comprehensive coverage of the appalling conditions aboard a crippled Carnival ocean liner, by April, the network saw its total day ratings soar 111 percent in the 25-54 demo.

Feist also points to Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, a new travel series that emphasizes the personal over the political—and to Bourdain himself, who acts as a correspondent on other shows.

Bourdain last summer told Adweek that his ideal show took place where “something amazing and exciting is happening, but you’re reasonably safe, and the food is good.” That philosophy has been the lodestar for the show, which won the Sunday 9 p.m. slot every night of its eight-episode run.

Of course, the revitalization of CNN is a work in progress, and the seas are sometimes choppy. Late last month, a handful of senior staffers at Feist’s bureau were let go. (While CNN didn’t comment on the layoffs, they were said to be a onetime occurrence.)

Andrew Tyndall, publisher of TyndallReport.com, characterized CNN’s success with stories like the voyage of the Triumph as Journalism 101. “What’s newsworthy and what’s important aren’t necessarily the same thing,” Tyndall said. “The reverse is also true—you’re going to save the world from global warming by eliminating coal-fueled power plants? We’ll give you 30 seconds.”

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