New York Magazine‘s Gabriel Sherman profiles CNN President Jeff Zucker, chronicling his career from NBC to CNN, his battle with serious health issues, and his current quest to revive CNN.
To try to lure viewers to CNN in prime time, he is turning over the 9 o’clock hour — which had been devoted to talk since the days of Larry King—to high-quality (and expensive) original entertainment programming. Over the past year, CNN has rolled out nonfiction series like The Sixties, produced by Tom Hanks, and documentaries such as the SeaWorld exposé Blackfish. Currently, the highest-rated show on CNN is the weekly travel program hosted by Anthony Bourdain. On September 28, the network launched a series with Lisa Ling; this week brings the debut of Mike Rowe. By next year, Zucker will have a dozen original series and six documentaries in CNN’s schedule. He even developed fictional scripts based on historical events, though those projects were ultimately scrapped. “We’re doing some things that antagonize people who are so protective of the legacy of CNN,” he said. “We have to change.”
The CNN chief acknowledges that big, chaotic breaking news is good news for the network.
It’s not that he’s giving up on news. When there is a news event that captures the public imagination, it will dominate CNN and preempt the prime-time shows. Zucker calls it “swarming and owning the big breaking-news stories.” The strategy was most vividly on display during CNN’s breathless—and seemingly endless — coverage of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, lowlighted by anchor Don Lemon speculating on camera that the missing plane might have flown into a black hole. (Zucker was frustrated by the gaffe: “Don, don’t be an idiot.”) During the crisis-filled summer of 2014, Zucker flooded CNN newscasts with coverage of the Veterans Affairs scandal, war in Ukraine, the Ebola epidemic, the Israel-Gaza conflict, and the rise of isis. His decisions are based in part on what topics are getting traffic online; he starts every editorial meeting with the head of CNN.com briefing the producers on the top five stories on CNN’s site. It seems to be paying off. Last month, during the height of the Ferguson protests, CNN beat Fox News in prime time on five consecutive nights in the coveted 25-to-54 demographic. “Chaos is good for CNN,” Zucker said. (Editor’s note: the 5 nights included two weekend days, from Friday, Aug. 15 to Tuesday, Aug. 19).
Sherman’s profile notes not all CNN stars are completely on board with Zucker’s changes.
According to CNN sources, Tapper vented to colleagues about having to cover the George Zimmerman trial so extensively, and Cooper protested the MH370 marathon. As for the entertainment programming, a veteran producer told me that it was “akin to McDonald’s taking reservations for dinner.”
And Zucker has already thought about life after CNN:
“I’d like to run a professional football team,” he says. “I’d love to run the USTA, be the sports editor of the New York Times. Would I consider a run for political office? Yes.” At another point, he told me “it’s a reasonable assumption” to say this is his last job in television.
Life at CNN got a little rosier for Zucker last week: the network finished the third quarter #2 in primetime and total day.