Jeff Zucker On Competitors, New Viewers And The ‘Human Drama’ Of The Cruise Coverage

By Alex Weprin 

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CNN president Jeff Zucker appeared on a panel with IAC’s Barry Diller at the AllThingsD conference yesterday evening. While Diller’s broadcast network-challenging company Aereo dominated the conversation, Zucker still weighed in on his plans to expand CNN’s programming, the future of digital news and the channel’s coverage of the Carnival Triumph cruise ship story.

With regard to the cable news competition:

“While they are covering events in Washington from a political point of view, that leaves the news for us to cover,” Zucker said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t cover politics, but politics is just one part of the news. We are covering politics and much more, and I think that is the opening for us.”

He again noted that CNN wants to add programming that would typically be found on channels like Discovery, Nat Geo and A&E. He also praised “Parts Unknown” for epitomizing that ethos.

“Four and a half million new viewers who have not watched CNN have now watched CNN because they watched Anthony Bourdain’s show,” Zucker said. “In order to be successful going forward, we need to do that, we need to bring new viewers to CNN.”

Zucker said that he was “very pleased” where CNN was digitally, and noted that while TV is the most important platform now, it may not be in 10 or 20 years. Still, regardless of the platform, maintaining CNN’s brand is vital.

“Protecting the brand is the key, and I think one of the things I have been so warmed by is how strong and vibrant the CNN brand continues to be, even as the ratings are not what they once were in recent years,” Zucker said.

But how does the channel’s coverage of the Carnival cruise fit into that brand strategy? Zucker gave a heated defense.

“Yes, some of our competitors criticized our continued coverage of the Carnival ‘poop cruise’ as they like to call it, on the other hand, one of the most important things on CNN in its early days was its 24/7 coverage of a girl in a well in Texas, because that was human drama. This was the same thing, this was human drama,” Zucker said. “I defy anybody to tell me, that if 3,000 people were trapped in the Empire State Building with no running water, no electricity, couldn’t get out, toilets not working and no food, that every news organization in the world wouldn’t be there covering it.

“I don’t think in any way that it hurt the CNN brand,” he added. “Not all the drama in Washington, sometimes it is on the seas of the Gulf of Mexico.”