Losing in the Ratings, Soledad O’Brien Longs ‘To Be On a Team that Strategizes How to Win’

By Gail Shister Comment

Safe to say CNN’s Soledad O’Brien is excited about her new boss.

When she heard that Jeff Zucker — also her old boss — had been named president of CNN Worldwide, “I thought, ‘Yes!,’” O’Brien says. “He knows news. He knows winning. He knows morning TV.”

That’s the ultimate trifecta for O’Brien, whose struggling morning show, ‘Starting Point,’ sometimes loses to HLN, and always loses to Fox News and MSNBC. Before she joined CNN in 2003, O’Brien worked under Zucker at NBC as he lit the spark on ‘Today’s’ 16-year winning streak.

“To me, Jeff Zucker is synonymous with winning,” she says. “He’s an incredible news executive. I want to be on a team that strategizes how to win. It’s great to have a leader… I’m thrilled.”

Conventional wisdom is that ‘Starting Point’ will be Job 1 for Zucker when he takes over next month. Mornings can be huge profit centers for networks, as evidenced by ‘Today,’ and CNN has yet to reap that kind of bounty.

O’Brien, at Philadelphia’s Drexel University last week to host an advance screening of her Sunday documentary, ‘Who is Black in America?’, says she’s frustrated by the ratings. Still, “we’ve been able to place our little show on the map in all the journalistically solid ways.”

It hasn’t been easy, according to CNN insiders. Since O’Brien returned to mornings about a year ago as solo anchor, the network has put “very little thought, resources, creativity or marketing” into the show, according to a veteran producer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We get a lot of support, from some angles,” O’Brien counters. “Morning TV is about habits. What you really need is for viewers to find you, get comfortable with you, make you part of their mornings. If you can make news, deliver things they value, you can be successful.”

O’Brien’s take-no-prisoners interview style, most notably with Mitt Romney and his campaign advisers and ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, led Newsweek to anoint her as ‘Cable TV’s New Morning Thunder.’

She takes it as a compliment. “I think we’ve done a really good job on our show creating noise and creating news. We’re forcing people to explain what they mean, to stick to the facts, even when they tell me they don’t care about facts, and that’s a quote” from a September interview with Rep. Peter King (R., NY).

O’Brien is equally passionate about her documentary series “Who is Black in America?” The fifth installment debuts tonight at 8pmET/PT.

O’Brien’s mother is a black Cuban who emigrated to the U.S. in the ‘50s; her father, an Australian of Irish stock. She has always identified herself as black. Growing up in a white, middle class neighborhood in Long Island, “even my white father would say, ‘You’re clearly black,’” she recalls.

Her parents met at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, where her dad was pursuing a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and her mom worked in the Chemistry Department. Because inter-racial marriage was outlawed in Maryland at the time, the couple had to drive to Washington, D.C., to tie the knot.

All six O’Brien offspring wanted to go to Harvard, and they did. Maria, 52, a law professor in Boston, graduated Harvard as an undergrad. Cecilia, 51, an attorney in New York, is Harvard Law. Tony, 50, a Washington lawyer, is Harvard and Harvard Law.

Estela, 49, an eye surgeon in Harlem, is Harvard. And the baby, Orestes, 45, a San Diego anesthesiologist, is Harvard Med. Soledad, 46, has a degree in English and American studies.

Thus far, no Harvard buildings have been named for the O’Brien brood. “I have a feeling it requires a lot more money than we’ve given,” Soledad says with a chuckle.