New boss Jeff Zucker is making changes but will need to work harder to draw back viewers by creating less predictable content.
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The obvious problem with CNN, depressing its ratings for the better part of a decade, is that it’s so sapless and bland – without a point of view, distinct personality or clear positioning.
Curiously, its new chief, Jeff Zucker – though one of the most famous executives in TV – is just as vanilla. I doubt if anyone could identify a Zucker style, or Zucker core, or pointed political tilt, or even, broadly, story-telling sensibility (direct; big picture; character driven?).
Zucker is the very definition of mainstream, network television: always headed for the big saccharine middle, the less committed the better. (See his most recent production: Katie Couric’s syndicated afternoon show – classic pabulum.)
In that sense, Zucker is no more lacking in distinctive ideas than his predecessors at CNN, a deep bench of middle-aged establishment men without meaningful opinions, nor the slightest inclination to deviate from the conventional wisdom, and certainly not the faintest tingle of subversiveness. The difference between those bland men and the equally “white bread” Zucker (a product of Harvard, NBC, and the General Electric Corporation) is that he, while without bold ideas, is nonetheless super-aggressive.
Zucker is an action figure. He does it his way. He makes decisions. He shakes things up. He’s inevitable. He’s unstoppable. And last week, kicking off his reign at CNN, he dispatched Mark Whitaker, the network’s news chief and resident journalism eminence, and put its dismally rated morning show into effective turn-around.
These are the kind of moves that his predecessors didn’t do; or, if they had wanted to do, would have contemplated for a long time, and then had someone else do it for them by half-way measures. That’s what people are saying at CNN: Zucker, the hands-on guy, is already cutting through the bureaucracy. He’s present; he’s everywhere. He’s part of the daily process.
Zucker’s predecessors were all based in Atlanta; Zucker has put himself in New York with the main CNN newsroom. He’s not seeing the world from 30,000ft – he’s at 15,000ft and parachuting in.
From a bureaucratic point of view, he’s disrupting the place by doing someone else’s job. He’s doing the ousted Mark Whitaker’s job. But he’s also doing the job of Whitaker’s boss, Ken Jautz, the president of US operations, who is likely toast himself.
While Zucker may not have a new or better idea of what CNN is or should be, the fact that he is making changes and shaking things up, and disposing of dead wood, seems very exciting to the rank and file. At least, to those who don’t think they’ll be fired right away. And even though CNN still lacks a forceful idea, it suggests a plan.
First, and obviously, Zucker is going to do the one thing that he knows how to do as well as anybody in the television business: fix the morning. Prior to CNN, Zucker had a contentious tenure as head of NBC, and before that, an equivocal run as the head of NBC entertainment. But before that, he was a boy wonder: hands-down star and virtual auteur of the Today Show. Just creating a successful morning show alone at CNN would make him a towering figure in US television.
He’s recruited Chris Cuomo (brother of Andrew, governor of New York state) from ABC for the morning slot. And he’s moved Erin Burnett to the morning from her evening position, suggesting that he is going to be running an HR-intensive strategy: hiring, firing, shifting talent. Television, at least in its traditional network version, has always used chemistry in lieu of ideas. A particular personality at a particularly point in the day equals “frisson”.
These moves suggest, too, that Zucker is not getting puffed-up about being the top executive of a global brand. His predecessors were all pretty satisfied that, regardless of domestic ratings, CNN was an incredibly profitable diversified portfolio (international, online, headline news), however bland and subject to great ridicule. And these executives always seemed wounded that their PR was so terrible when, to them, CNN was a pretty remarkable and solid business.
Zucker surely understands that he was hired not to supervise CNN’s great profits, but to get it ratings. And buzz. And favorable publicity.
Zucker is nearly as famous for his ability to get good press as for what he did on the Today Show. Hence, for domestic programming, the buzz machine. Last week, CNN announced a deal with Ridley Scott for a non-fiction series called Crime of the Century, set to air on weekends, and suggesting the possibility that Zucker sees a future beyond news.
This is called broadening “the scope of programming on CNN”. Or, put another way, the great tendency of all television is to look like all other television. And CNN, absent the ideas that motivate cable news, ought to be a little more like the Discovery Channel.
But it is unlikely that Zucker would want to forgo an attempt on the mountain top of having a successful prime-time news operation. By moving Erin Burnett to the morning, he is already opening up the evening for some dramatic new hire. He’ll be looking for an 800-pounder to anchor his schedule, likely trimming back the lighter Anderson Cooper from two hours to one, and polling the jury on the fate of Piers Morgan (a jury of one).
On the other hand, this is where “idea dearth” becomes most evident and inhibiting. It is very clear what cable news is and how it works. This is regrettable to many people but not a mystery: good cable news is about alienating a lot of people to satisfy some people. Cable news is talk radio – and has never worked on any other model.
Whereas Zucker is more of the school of, well, Brian Williams: of a tone and character and nature offensive to no one. Zucker’s nature is to give everybody what they want, aggressively so. You might even say that Zucker running a cable network is a contradiction in terms – with him seeking to do things with the sizzle, clarity, and technique of Fox, but without the politics. That is quite a dizzying contradiction.
Still, Zucker has embarked on a personal journey: how to convert his own bland network sensibility into an edgy cable joie de vivre.
So, say, how about, stealing Brian Williams from the ever-beleaguered NBC and pairing him with … his own daughter, Allison Williams, now staring in HBO’s Girls. Call HR!