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Jeff Zucker, The Man In Charge of Killing CNN

Posted by on October 7, 2014

Introduced to the world in 1980 by television visionary Ted Turner, CNN, which stands for Cable NEWS Network, became the first 24/7 television news network. It has cable distribution deals that afford it a reach of 100,000,000 homes in the US, and millions and millions of more viewers through its international networks and affiliates.

In January of 2013, former NBC/Universal President Jeff Zucker was picked to head the cable news operation. Looking at Zucker’s career path, one might see why it was believed he could successfully manage and build CNN; his career had seen a series of positions requiring more and more responsibility. He had news experience, having previously been in charge of the Today Show, if one considers that show “news.” Depending on whom you ask, the reviews for Zucker’s tenure at NBC are mixed.

From various internet sources:

Under Zucker NBC fell from being the number one rated network to the lowest rated of the four broadcast networks and was occasionally being beaten in the ratings by programming on some of the more popular cable channels.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that in Hollywood “there has been a single topic of discussion: How does Jeff Zucker keep rising and rising while the fortunes of NBC keep falling and falling? …many in the Hollywood community have always regarded him as …a network Napoleon who never bothered to learn about developing shows and managing talent.” She explained that Zucker “is a master at managing up with bosses and calculating cost-per-hour benefits, but even though he made money on cable shows, he could not program the network to save his life.”

Dowd also reported that an unnamed “honcho at another network” stated that “Zucker is a case study in the most destructive media executive ever to exist… You’d have to tell me who else has taken a once-great network and literally destroyed it.”

Whether he was successful or not at NBC isn’t really of consequence; if one judges success by the fact that he garnered a $25 million + exit package, then yeah, I guess he’s successful.

But primarily he had overseen entertainment programs at NBC, and he is apparently intent on bringing that background to CNN.

From the changes made so far, and announced for the future, it would seem that Zucker believes the network can do “better” by obtaining a small piece of a larger cable ‘pie’ (stealing audience away from dramatic and reality channels), rather than trying to completely dominate a segment where there are very few competitors. (cable news).

So he’s shuffled talent around, experimented with new hosts and slightly varying formats, and now is busy adding “non news” shows like Anthony Bourdain.

In published interviews Zucker explained the changes he intends to employ to CNN’s programming. Zucker said that his intent to refashion CNN’s programming to feature “more shows and less newscasts.” In an effort to attract viewers of cable channels like The Discovery Channel and A&E he wants CNN to publish more documentary like programming that provides viewers with what he called a unique “attitude and a take.

It seems that so far, this strategy is failing as CNN’s audience is at a 20 year low.

The “powers that be” have obviously forgotten what built the network in the first place, and what’s missing from today’s on air broadcasting line up: hard news reporting, backed up by solid investigative long form journalism, in a format accessible and digestible by a new breed of younger consumers of news and information.

I suspect that millennials hardly relate to Wolf Blitzer.

One of the most rewarding stops in my career was a stint overseeing a multinational division of a global news agency; it was also the best group of colleagues I ever had. While I had responsibility over the entire division, that did not include editorial decisions; however, my business decisions had the potential to affect editorial content on a daily basis. So I was acutely aware of the prioritization of news coverage that we distributed, and what went in to producing those stories.

I particularly remember the painstaking work that went into verifying ‘breaking news,” and obtaining verification from 2nd and 3rd sources prior to running with the story, despite the pressure to be ‘first.’

The days of that type of conscientious journalism are gone and that is especially obvious when watching CNN or one of its competitors, when rumors become ‘breaking news’ and verifications are apparently pretty far down the “to do” list.

Apparently, in Zucker’s mind, breaking news breaks over and over again throughout the day, as they rerun the same story that they “broke” hours earlier.

I’d like to see more news, not less, Mr. Zucker. As much as I enjoy Anthony Bourdain on occasion, I’m hardly going to tune in to CNN to watch him.

As I said earlier, you need to be more aware and in tune with your newer audience, and how they receive, manage, and digest information.

There are so many ultra-qualified, long form, investigative journalists out on the street these days that would certainly be grateful for work. You might also benefit from picking up some of the producers let go at Current TV.

You’ll have to lose some of your content bias, as well, of course. While I personally don’t think CNN is quite as bad as Fox in its leanings, a slant is surely there.

Step up to your challenge. Bring back the cachet and credibility of a first rate news organization. Hire journalists, not “talent.” Develop a Rolodex of experts that goes deeper than “founder of the popular blog… or CNN host of …….”.

If you’re fresh out of ideas on how to do that, or don’t know how, call Ted Turner. I’ll bet he has an idea or two about his baby.

 

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