Former CNN president Jonathan Klein began hearing tales about “whiz kid” Jeff Zucker in the late ‘80s. It was a family thing.
Zucker’s mother was a teacher at Miami’s New World School of the Arts. Klein’s father, former principal of New York’s famed LaGuardia High School of Music and the Arts, was New World’s founding provost. The two became good friends.
At the time, Jonathan Klein discounted the Zucker stories as “the exaggerations of a Jewish mother,” he recalls. “I heard about this amazing kid and all his successes. When I finally met him, he turned out to be more amazing than even his publicist — his mother — had said.”
Zucker, 47, named last week as president of CNN Worldwide, will need plenty of “amazing” to turn things around at its foundering flagship network, CNN/U.S. But if anyone can do it, he can, according to Klein and numerous others.
“Jeff would live in a control room if he could,” says Klein (left), who’s launching another digital media company and has sold “a few” TV pilots.
“The staff is ecstatic to have a real news guy, a Hall of Famer in the news business, to run things,” Klein adds. “It really craves his brand of bold, dynamic leadership. He’s sure to bring a fresh perspective.”
According to several CNN employees – none of whom would speak for attribution – the beleaguered New York staff is practically counting the minutes until Zucker takes over next month. In a CNN first, he will be based out of New York instead of Atlanta – another plus, they say.
“I’m thrilled,” says a veteran on-air talent. “The place has obviously been drifting – no progress, no vision, no fixing of mistakes. It’s always great to be there for big breaking stories, but on a day-by-day basis, we’re getting slaughtered.”
A longtime CNN producer says the staff has been demoralized by a series of leaders with inadequate TV skills . “A lot of people in charge haven’t had the resume to do the job. They talk big, but they don’t have the capacity to deliver. It’s been mystifying how unqualified people have been hired, over and over again.
In Zucker, “they finally hired someone who understands TV production,” the producer adds. “Whatever his pluses and minuses were in entertainment, he understands a news organization.”
Aside from his debacle as head of NBC Entertainment, Zucker has rarely met a challenge he didn’t master – including having beaten colon cancer, twice. Even as a teenager, his ambition exceeded his physical stature. President of the senior class at North Miami High School, his campaign slogan was: “The little man with the big ideas.”
At Harvard, he was president of the Crimson. Had he been accepted to Harvard Law, he planned to pursue politics. Instead, he became a part-time NBC researcher for the ’86 Olympics. He so impressed Jane Pauley, then ‘Today’ co-anchor and an Olympics morning anchor, she persuaded her bosses to hire him as a field producer.
“Jeff had encyclopedic knowledge and instantaneous recall,” Pauley told me in a 1993 interview. “He was so competent, everybody treated him like a peer or superior very quickly. I was shocked to realize he was a temporary employee.”
Equally important, in Pauley’s view, was the young man’s gold-medal schmoozing ability. “Jeff was a real confidence-builder. He was very charming. He always made me feel like a glamorous older woman.”
As has become almost folkloric in the news business, Zucker was named ‘Today’s’ youngest-ever executive producer at 26. When Jon Klein’s mother tipped him off the day before the announcement, “I assumed she had misunderstood the title,” says Klein, at the time a producer at CBS. “I said, ‘Mom, he’s 26. No way they’re giving him a show at that age.’”
If that weren’t enough of a coup, about a year later, Zucker also became executive producer of Tom Brokaw’s ‘Nightly News’ – an unprecedented daily double that involved hellacious deadlines at opposite ends of the clock.
Having anchored both shows on the same day for brief stints in the mid- 1970s, Brokaw recalled in the ’93 interview that “at the end of two weeks I was kind of drooling.” Despite Zucker’s uber-competitive DNA, he lasted less than six weeks.
Nineteen years later, Zucker will bring that DNA to a network that, in the words of a CNN executive producer, “can, at times, resemble the post office in its size, scope and sense of importance. It’s very hard to motivate a group of people doing ‘God’s work.’”
Smart money says Zucker will find a way. A congenital riverboat gambler, he likes to bet big. At this point, CNN has nothing to lose.