Jeff Zucker on How Quickly CNN Can Be No. 1: ‘Come Back to Me in Three Years’

By Alex Weprin 

CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker has been mostly quiet on his plans for CNN. Save for a few public appearances, and a press call when he was first announced, he has not given any interviews to the media that covers the media.

“This is the only time I have talked,” Zucker said to a handful of reporters gathered around him at the Landmarc restaurant in Time Warner Center including the AP’s David Bauder, Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple, The NY Post’s Claire Atkinson, THR’s Marisa Guthrie, the Los Angeles Times’ Joe Flint and us. The back room at Landmarc had been the setting for the formal reveal of CNN’s new morning show “New Day,” (a clip of which you can see here on Vine) with the anchors and producers answering our questions.

The CNN president was asked how quickly he thinks CNN can become the number one cable news channel.

“Come back to me in three years,” Zucker says. “We have been here for four months, there is no way that anyone would have thought that we would be in the position that we are in, and we have miles and miles to go.

“We have to maintain where we are today. Fox is number one, they are incredibly strong and incredibly dominant,” he added.

Zucker’s vision for CNN is right in line with what he said it would be on that first conference call, where he said he wanted the channel to cover more than just politics and war.

“What I want CNN to be is to be aggressive in news, coupled with programming like Anthony Bourdain, ” Zucker said, noting that when you broaden the definition of “news,” there will always be something to cover, but that doesn’t mean ordinary people will tune in. “We need a number of programs that you would not normally find on cable news networks but on places like Discovery, A&E, Nat Geo, we want to compete in that arena as well as the traditional cable news arena that CNN has traditionally been grouped into.”

This is not to say the traditional anchor-led programs will be going away. Zucker cited “New Day,” “The Lead,” “The Situation Room” and “AC360” as some of CNN’s signature programs, although that doesn’t mean they can’t change. “AC360” tested out a new panel format a few weeks ago, which Zucker champions.

“We were very pleased with that program, very pleased,” Zucker said, adding that the 8 PM edition of “AC360” won’t be changing.

Then there is “Reliable Sources,” the long-running media criticism show hosted by Howard Kurtz.

Kurtz was grilled on his own show after a series of embarrassing errors were revealed on some Daily Beast stories, and he subsequently left the website.

“It has been noteworthy that just about everyone in this group has applied for the program, thank you for your résumés,” Zucker joked. (We didn’t). “But ‘Reliable Sources’ will continue, and Howie will continue to host that program.”

He also spoke publicly about Erin Burnett, who was long believed to be the leading candidate to host the new morning show.

“In the end we both decided that it was probably more important for her, and more important for the network for her to stay at 7,” Zucker said.  “Her program is growing, and I think she preferred not to be waking up at that hour, and to continue doing her program.”