Stagnant news cabler needs leader willing to take big risks

Hate Jeff Zucker if you must, but there’s a lot to like about CNN hiring him.

That’s not an easy thing for anyone to hear on the West Coast, where his popularity ranks somewhere between smog and wildfires. When published reports surfaced Tuesday that he was picked to lead the beleaguered news network, it spurred memories of his oft-criticized reign at NBCUniversal, where he alienated many in showbiz as the company’s crown jewel, NBC, crumbled.

And that’s what makes his hire by Jeff Bewkes a brave and counterintuitively wise choice. If anyone was questioning the Time Warner CEO’s willingness to make a divisive selection, look no further than the three-way bakeoff currently playing out at Warner Bros. among the execs vying to succeed Barry Meyer as chairman-CEO next year.

Zucker’s willingness to make waves is the reason his appointment carries such potential. There’s no question that shaking up CNN is going to be what it takes to restore the full value of a troubled, but still formidable, brand. And the challenges that await Zucker at CNN are not unlike what he confronted at the Peacock.

Consider where CNN now stands. The primetime block has been in shambles for years, hammering its advertising revenue. Fox News Channel has long towered over CNN in the ratings with its lineup of conservative commentators. MSNBC, an NBCU property where Zucker’s involvement has been overlooked, has done the same with a left-leaning slate.

CNN has hewn to a more traditionally journalistic, “objective” approach, one Bewkes has indicated he’s loath to leave behind. But that high-minded strategy obscures a network in the midst of an identity crisis — ironic considering it is only when a crisis grips the world stage that CNN demonstrates the strength of its brand.

That said, CNN’s troubles are somewhat overstated since primetime represents less than 10% of revenues for a still very profitable business that remains a dynamo overseas and on digital platforms.

But no one knows better than Zucker that image is more important than reality. It’s not unlike what he faced at NBCUniversal, where the success of the cable-channel biz during his tenure did nothing to eclipse the collapse of the broadcast network, even as NBC’s importance to NBCU’s overall financials diminished amid the conglom’s increasingly diversified portfolio. As Zucker quipped then, NBC Entertainment may have been responsible for only about 5% of the conglom’s bottom line but still accounted for about “95% of our perception.”

When NBC suffered through the inevitable cyclical decline that hits every network, Zucker didn’t help matters by placing the wrong bets on new shows that couldn’t hold a candle to past juggernauts like “Friends” and “ER.” But he also demonstrated a willingness to take big swings as he rethought not just the business of a network in decline but an industry with diminishing growth prospects.

Nearly two years after he left NBCU, Zucker’s missteps are still top of mind for bizzers: Screwing over Conan O’Brien to keep Jay Leno, who was surely going to get better ratings; clearing out scripted programming at 10 p.m. to try a more cost-effective approach to an hour that was proving inhospitable to scripted series; hiring as NBC’s chief programmer a maverick like Ben Silverman ready to experiment on blurring the traditional boundaries between advertising and creative.

None of these measures succeeded, but you have to admire Zucker’s penchant for bucking conventional wisdom. He wasn’t interested in winning friends in a business where that practice is paramount; he was interested in transforming that business.

CNN is at a crossroads similar to the one NBC faced not too long ago. Fixing its primetime sked is going to take some bold moves — perhaps the kind that will have traditionalists in the news business carping and cawing. Many of them no doubt reside in Atlanta.

Bewkes and Turner Broadcasting chief Phil Kent considered a wide range of candidates for the role, from execs with deep news biz experience like NBC News prexy Steve Capus and former ABC News topper David Westin to strategists like ex-Dick Clark Prods. head Mark Shapiro. But CNN doesn’t need a coach that is going to school the network on the journalistic equivalent of fundamentals like blocking and tackling; it needs someone who is going to rewrite the playbook.

CNN needs what Zucker was able to do at NBC’s “Today” at an earlier stage in his career: to shake up established practices and find a new groove. Rare is the executive who has significant experience across both news and entertainment, along with a healthy respect for how digital is transforming both. Zucker fits that profile to a T.

The radical rethink of established practices Zucker has to undertake at CNN is not unlike what Disney called on Rich Ross to attempt at Walt Disney Studios, and we all know how that turned out. But the moral of that story isn’t that you don’t attempt change because it is too tough to pull off. The lesson is that it takes someone who’s already proven he knows how to attempt a bold turnaround to succeed when there’s such a high degree of difficulty.

Imagine the hooting and hollering that would occur if CNN dared to migrate the kind of unscripted programming it will be trying on weekends with Anthony Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock to time periods more accustomed to traditional news. It’s going to take someone like Zucker to make that happen.

And therein lies an interesting wrinkle in the Zucker comeback story: He’ll be knocking on the doors of the same talent agencies he alienated in the past in search of other talent to reignite CNN. But that won’t be a problem. He may make a lot of people in this town see red, but his money is still green.

If anything, his failures at NBCU are an asset in that Zucker has something to prove. He knows there are naysayers who want him to fail. And he probably craves an opportunity for redemption, something his current lower-profile gig as exec producer of Katie Couric’s syndie talkshow wasn’t going to deliver.

The fresh wave of Zucker-bashing that will undoubtedly accompany his return to a prominent exec perch will only fuel his desire to win.

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