Dear Jeff Zucker: A Handy Guide to Fixing CNN

Dear Jeff:

For starters, it’s been awhile since you left NBC, so let me just say, as they used to put it on “Ally McBeal,” “Bygones.”

Now regarding this new gig you’ve apparently landed, overseeing CNN.

You might have missed it, but I wrote a letter (OK, column) about some of the challenges you’ll be facing in this job about a month ago. Not to pat myself on the back, but given your flair for clever promotion, I hope you’ll forgive me when I say it’s Must-Read (About) TV.

Realizing you’re probably kind of busy, let me summarize some of the key points. Here’s one passage worth repeating:

Trying to position itself as the hard news, genuinely
fair-and-balanced alternative to Fox News Channel on the right and MSNBC
on the left doesn’t address the advantage those channels have in
possessing showy personalities (Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, Rachel
Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell) who can bring viewers back for extended
stretches, in much the way talkradio does.

CNN, by contrast, more
closely mirrors newsradio, where listeners tune in to check news,
weather or traffic and scatter just as quickly. It’s a valuable role
when there’s a major breaking-news event — and CNN’s international
presence still dwarfs competitors — but not so swell on run-of-the-mill
news days, forcing the channel to engage in a level of hyperbole that
does nothing to buttress its credibility.

At the end of the column, I then presented the new head of CNN (and here’s a little secret: I suspected at the time it would be you) with a series of questions, including:

Doesn’t your challenge boil down to getting people to watch longer?
And without becoming partisan, how do you get them to do that?

Can you become “stickier,” to borrow a phrase from prior regimes, without being just plain oily?

Do
you ever watch “The Daily Show” pieces about CNN? Because you really
should — they’re not only entertaining, but quite enlightening about
its shortcomings.

The good news is it’s probably still possible to improve ratings at CNN. The bad news is every move you make that tarts up the product will be scrutinized, analyzed and dissected by wretches like me, who actually like the idea of holding CNN — silly us — to journalistic standards, which makes the whole balancing act that much trickier.

Anyway, best of luck avoiding the landmines. You’re going to need it. And no matter how tempting it might be, let me just say three little words of friendly advice: “NO DONALD TRUMP.”

Your pal,

Brian

 

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  1. Porter says:

    Brian: As the guy who wrote the book on Ted Turner and CNN, I am disappointed that your advice to Jeff Zucker is without any real substance. You are wrong that returning CNN to its roots and core competency is not a winning formula, especially against the partisan competitors CNN has spawned.
    It is hard to find real news anywhere on television these days and integrating CNN’s digitial intiatives with its broadcasts, eliminating ‘appointment programming’ and fatuous talking head programs will restore credibility and viewership and insure that concerned viewers everywhere will turn to CNN whenever they walk into a room with a TV set, since it is important for them to know what is really going on in the world.
    Zucker’s gift for promotion and making headlines can translate into CNN’s being taken seriously once again and justifying the bloated CPM’s TimeWarner has been able to charge advertisers, despite its decades long ratings decline.

  2. Bryce Zabel says:

    Brian… I came to LA in the last century to be the first LA based CNN correspondent. I’ve watched it grow, morph, advance and retreat over the years since.
    When all of us from those early days quit our current jobs (I had a nice anchor gig in Arizona) to go to work for CNN we did it because we believed that 24/7 news access was a good thing that could change the world. In many respects, the world has changed — CNN paved the way for its own competitors to emerge and for its current malaise to grow.
    I think that returning to its earlier mission statement with some of Jeff Zucker’s production polish might be the ticket. Jeff has taken his knocks, but he is one smart guy with some relevant experience. They could do much worse.
    I don’t want a CNN that sounds like KCBS news radio with traffic on the fives. I do want a CNN that is watchable in long stretches, that refreshes its content, and uses that giant 24-hour hole and fills it with news and information that makes me think and makes me smarter.
    I still believe in CNN. It’s a brand that needs a refresh, not a reinvention.

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