Jeff Zucker Defends Massive Overhaul of CNN: 'We Have to Change' to Survive

October 6th, 2014 7:49 PM

Ever since Jeff Zucker took the reins of the Cable News Network in January of 2013, he has made many significant changes in that channel's programming. His most popular move has been a shift from solid news to more reality shows, such as Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and The Hunt With John Walsh.

However, that change has also drawn fire from such people as Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show on the Comedy Central cable channel, who launched a campaign on the Kickstarter website to raise $10 billion to buy CNN because it's been “terrible for many, many years.”

On the other hand, the cast of NBC's Saturday Night Live program produced a fake commercial mocking CNN's never-ending “news” coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

During an extensive interview with Gabriel Sherman of New York Magazine, Zucker was noted as responding to these attacks “with a mixture of bluster and prickliness.”

The CNN president dismissed criticism from Stewart: “We’re on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He’s doing one seven-minute monologue four nights a week with 20 writers.”

“We’re doing some things that antagonize people who are so protective of the legacy of CNN,” he continued. “We have to change.”

“From the moment Zucker took over CNN in January 2013,” Sherman stated, “he had been focused on getting the morning right. He was a morning-television savant, after all, having led the Today show on a storied run of ratings dominance.”

Meanwhile, CNN’s early show -- Starting Point With Soledad O’Brien -- “had become a symbol of the network’s slide from cable-news pioneer to industry laggard,” the reporter noted. “O’Brien drew just 260,000 viewers, compared with more than a million people who watched Fox & Friends and some 450,000 viewers of Morning Joe on MSNBC.”

Zucker arrived at the channel's headquarters “at 6 a.m. on the Monday of New Day’s debut,” Sherman noted. “He couldn’t afford to be out at such a crucial moment.”

However, New Day’s debut ratings were actually worse than those of its predecessor.

This came as a shock to Zucker, who had been involved with cable news while head of NBC Universal, when “he pushed MSNBC to fashion a liberal response to Roger Ailes’s right-wing megaphone at Fox. The two loud voices at the poles left CNN’s low-decibel newscasts drowned out in the middle. Its viewership had fallen to its lowest levels since 1991.”

Nevertheless, Sherman asserted, CNN has remained profitable -- to the tune of $600 million a year -- due to long-term subscription contracts with cable providers even though “the ratings were an embarrassment, especially in prime time.”

Ever since his arrival, Zucker threw himself into his work. “He began leading the network’s 9 a.m. editorial meeting, something his predecessor never did,” Sherman stated. In fact, Anderson Cooper told his colleagues that Zucker is “the first CNN president to actually watch CNN.”

Still, many of his early programming concepts fizzled, Sherman indicated. Along with New Day, he tried to revive Crossfire after an eight-year absence from the channel only to have it quickly put “on indefinite hiatus.”

Jake Tapper, a Zucker recruit from ABC News, has only produced a modest ratings uptick. Last September, Zucker launched a 10 p.m. panel show hosted by Cooper but canceled it four months later.

In February, he also canceled Piers Morgan’s interview show, which he had inherited. Conventional cable-news shows just weren’t working, Zucker concluded. “It’s very difficult to find talent,” he complained to a friend. Not to mention an audience.

Even when CNN has tried to cover breaking news, the channel is regularly accused of overdoing it or stumbling during the process. One example of this was when Don Lemon, during his coverage of the search for the missing airplane, actually speculated on the air that it might have flown into a black hole.

Zucker told Sherman that he was frustrated by Lemon's gaffe: “Don, don’t be an idiot!”

As NewsBusters previously reported, the Cable News Network made “modest” gains in ratings during the third quarter of 2014, due in part to the successful debut of The Hunt, which on July 14 drew the highest ratings for the premiere of a CNN original series.

Two weeks into the show's run, federal marshals and police tracked a Walsh target, Charles Mozdir -- a 32-year-old alleged sex offender who had been on the run for two years -- to a West Village head shop. In a shootout, officers shot Mozdir ten times, killing him.

“What John Walsh did through this storytelling of this creep and his capture and death was impact journalism,” Zucker asserted while probably not aware of the double meaning of that phrase.