Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent On Jeff Zucker And ‘Fixing’ CNN

By Alex Weprin Comment

Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent has a good idea of that CNN’s problems have been and what new CNN president Jeff Zucker is doing to fix them. As Zucker’s boss at Time Warner, Kent is a big part of the conversations happening there behind the scenes.

The cover story for this week’s issue of Broadcasting & Cable has Andrea Morabito interviewing Kent (subscription required), with a good deal of the conversation focusing on the cable news channel. Kent seemed most excited about the soon-to-launch morning show, which will be co-anchored by Chris Cuomo, but he also tells Morabito “I think we need at least one new primetime show.”

What kind of timeline did you and Jeff talk about for making changes, and for seeing results?

Not overnight, not short-term. He and I both know this is a marathon not a sprint. In fact, I have probably said more times than I needed to say “you don’t need to do any Hail Mary moves.” We have a good business, we get a great CPM premium. We need more “M’s,” yes, but let’s do it the right way. Let’s get the fans back. I think the biggest problem that CNN has had over the last couple of years is the ratings go up and down with the news environment. We lost fans because of inconsistency. What he and I talked about-and this is where I have great comfort that we’re on the same page-is people need to know what they’re tuning into when they tune into CNN and it has to be deemed essential by more people again. What that’s going to do is not only get the ratings up the right way through the acquisition of getting back old fans and getting new fans, but also in the affiliate side, which again, half our revenue comes from advertising, half comes from affiliate revenue; there’s nothing better than to be deemed essential by a hard-core pocket of people.

You’ve said before the problem with primetime was largely operational, not talent. Do you still believe that?

I think we have a lot of good talent. I think what we’ve had, quite frankly, is not enough great behind-the-camera talent. I think we have a number of fantastic producers at CNN but we need more. A lot of attention was given to on-camera talent but probably not enough commensurate attention to producing talent, and Jeff understands even more than I do how important that is-TV is a producer’s medium.

Everyone knows I was very close to, and was a big fan of Jeff’s predecessor, but Jim [Walton] was more into running the whole business of CNN and would be the first one to say that he wasn’t the content person. With Jeff Zucker we get the benefit of not only somebody who is a good businessperson and has the ability to lead a large organization, but he is a real expert in news content. He’s an impresario. And that’s what CNN needed-a news content impresario.

What’s the biggest misconception about CNN?

That it’s a liberal news network. It drives me crazy. It’s not.

So how do you change that?

I think [if] people watch it more critically and not just listen to what other people say about it-I won’t mention names-they’ll see that it [isn’t], and I think one of the things we fix is make sure we have the right balance of voices on CNN. That we have good conservatives, good liberals, experts in all areas. It’s a serious news network.