A Tough Road Ahead For Jeff Zucker, Chris Cuomo And CNN In The Morning

By Alex Weprin Comment

The day he was announced as CNN’s new worldwide president, Jeff Zucker and his new boss Turner Broadcasting chairman Phil Kent held a conference call with reporters.

Kent, never one to mince words, said that one of the reasons Time Warner hired Zucker was his experience in morning news.

“It is not lost on any of us that occasionally HLN’s morning show beats CNN’s morning show,” Kent said. “One of the hundred other reasons I wanted [Zucker] was because of his experience in the morning.”

Now, barely a week into his new job, Zucker is planning to shake up the mornings, replacing “Starting Point” with a new program anchored by Chris Cuomo, and possibly another anchor such as Erin Burnett. It is far too soon to speculate about what the new program will look like, but it is worth noting that Cuomo and Burnett have extensive experience in the mornings, although not exactly on the most-watched programs.

Zucker, of course, changed the morning show game when he rose to the top of “Today” in 1992, at the age of 26.

A gifted news programmer, he had an ear for what stories popped with viewers at that hour, and the bond that people at home shared with the hosts. As he rose at NBC, he was humbled, but no one has denied what he did for the Peacock Network in the early hours.

There is arguably no other network more in need of a morning revamp than CNN, which has been slowly losing viewers in the mornings for years. CBS has struggled compared to NBC and ABC, but its “CBS This Morning” is still millions of viewers ahead of its cable competition.

CNN’s troubles began with “American Morning,” which had carved out a niche as a newsy alternative to the likes of “Today” and “Good Morning America” in the early 2000s. As the way viewers consume news changed, so too did “AM'”s viewership. In 2007, Miles O’Brien and Soledad O’Brien were moved off the show in favor of John Roberts and Kiran Chetry. The duo lasted until 2011, even as the network continued to whittle away viewers in the time period. During that time HLN’s “Morning Express with Robin Meade” began to occasionally top its older sibling in the ratings, as noted by Kent. Ali Velshi, Christine Romans and Carol Costello filled in on “AM,” until CNN announced a revamp of its morning lineup in late 2011, comprised of an early show hosted by Ashleigh Banfield and Zoraida Sambolin and a late show anchored by Soledad O’Brien.

Now a year in, neither program has stopped CNN’s viewership declines in those hours.

That brings us to today, with a new gameplan, a new chief executive and an anchor from a broadcast network. With “Today” and “Good Morning America” firmly entrenched as the soft news/entertainment leaders, CBS as the newsy alternative,  “Morning Joe” as the insidery political show and “Fox & Friends” as the right-leaning populist option, there does not seem to be much wiggle room for CNN.

Zucker and the cable channel he now runs will have to take on at least one of its competitors head-on in a play for their viewers. The only question is the direction the new show takes.