Jeff Zucker’s Vision For CNN: ‘Broaden The Definition Of What News Is’

By Alex Weprin 

Soon-to-be CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker and his new boss, Turner Broadcasting chairman Phil Kent, held a conference call with reporters this morning to talk about Zucker’s hire. There were plenty of talking points, but reading between the lines, it was clear that Zucker had a vision–at least a general one–of what he thought CNN has to do to remain relevant in a competitive, multi-platform news environment.

“I think our competition today is anybody that competes for eyeballs and attention and produces non-fiction programming,” Zucker said. “News is about more than politics and war, we need to broaden that definition of what news is, while maintaining the standards of CNN’s journalistic excellence.”

“We have had shows about sports, fashion and technology, and some of that is going to be revisited,” Kent said. “It is all news that people need and are interested about. There is a lot of subject matter that we probably don’t give enough attention to.”

CNN is beginning to expand to other forms of non-fiction programming on the weekends with new shows next year hosted by Anthony Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock. Zucker said that “it wouldn’t be fair” to any current hosts or shows to discuss what he had planned for them.

That said, it seemed clear that two areas Zucker wanted to focus on are CNN’s primetime lineup and its morning program, where he has real-world experience having taken NBC’s “Today” show to #1 in the ’90s, where it stayed for 16 years.

“I think [primetime] will be one of the top priorities as we look ahead,” Zucker said. “In my mind it is probably more important than ever, in a place where partisan politics has been so loud. But the fact is if we allow our competition to be defined only by the partisan cable networks, that is a mistake.

We have to remain true to the journalistic values that are the hallmark of CNN, and also continue to broaden the definition of what news is. Our competition is not just Fox and MSNBC,” he added.

As for the mornings:

“It is not lost on any of us that occasionally HLN’s morning show beats CNN’s morning show,” Kent said. “One of the hundred other reasons I wanted [Zucker] was because of his experience in the morning.”

Other key takeaways:

Zucker’s New York HQ isn’t a big deal: “We are a virtual, global company, and Jeff living in New York is no problem with me,” Kent says.

No layoffs are planned, but CNN is always looking for “smart allocations of resources.”

CNN’s door is open for talented hosts, and other companies:

“There may be an opportunity some day in the future to do something with or for another network, but it is not on the radar right now,” Kent said. “Our door is open for companies that want to work with us, and the companies know that.”

“There is great talent at CNN, and we are always going to be looking for great talent to come here as well,” Zucker said. “This will hopefully be a place where talent will have huge opportunities and will want to be at.”

CNN wants to win, but it wants to build a hard core fan base first:

“What is very important is that we are essential every day to some core pocket of fans,” Kent said. CNN should be essential to a core fan-base that comes to us as many nights a week as possible, and more often. The best way to build back ratings for a network like CNN is to build back hard core fans, and make it essential.”

CNN’s own Josh Levs put Zucker on the spot, asking him a yes or no question on whether one of his goals was to make CNN number one in cable news, ahead of Fox News and MSNBC. There was a long pause on the other line, after which Zucker said “yes.”