In: Chris Cuomo, Jake Tapper, Rachel Nichols
Out: James Carville, Mary Matalin, Erick Erickson
He's just getting started, no doubt, but where is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking Zucker hinted in his own pre-hire press conference would be necessary to reinvent the struggling news network? Yes, Tapper is solid but no maverick, Nichols is a standard-issue ESPNbot, and Cuomo…really? As generic a blowdried blowhard as anchors come.
So as Zucker plots his next moves, maybe it's time he dust off his Rolodex from the NBCUniversal days and make some calls that would really deliver on the notion that he's shaking up CNN. Start with these five guys:
Keith Olbermann. If CNN's most pressing concern is bringing in on-air talent capable of sustaining a competitive rating in primetime, it only makes sense to call one of the few who has that on his resume. He's available now that he is out at Current, the former employer with whom he's embroiled in lawsuits over the demise of their relationship (though it's possible he is on the sidelines now due to non-compete clause in his contract).
But even once he's free and clear to return to the air, there is the matter of his infamous intractability. Plus he's reportedly clashed with Zucker in the past when he was at MSNBC whilst Zucker was leading NBCUniversal. But Zucker is not the kind of guy who is going to hold a grudge when he could be holding onto a 2 rating.
And then there is the fact that Olbermann is avowedly left wing, which may not be a good match if CNN wants to maintain a middle ground. Olbermann is not the kind of guy who can tone down anything, from a political or psychological perspective.
But after a few more months of doing monologues to the audience in his bathroom mirror, maybe Olbermann will be up–and his asking price down–for the kind of adjustments (meditation, medication, etc.) that will get him back in the game.
Conan O'Brien. Oh, come now. A comedian on a news network? Arch enemies from the debacle at NBC that sent the late-night host packing, his walking papers signed by Zucker…together again?
Well, why not?
First, note that O'Brien and Zucker are now both in Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting division. And though there's probably a restraining order in place separating them, perhaps that bridge could be divided by the opportunity Zucker can extend O'Brien to diversify his persona and perhaps have a weekly CNN perch where he can show off his more serious side in addition to his TBS gig.
If that sounds unrealistic, consider that it's already kinda happening. Last September, O'Brien launched "Serious Jibber-Jabber with Conan O'Brien," a Web-only showcase for him to conduct long-form interviews in the Charlie Rose mold (guests have included Jack White, Nate Silver, Judd Apatow). Sounds like perfect training ground for O'Brien to take a similar vehicle to a sister network.
As for the Hatfield/McCoy dynamic between he and Zucker, it would only draw more publicity to O'Brien moonlighting at CNN. Would an on-air hug be out of the question?
Andy Cohen. The notion that Bravo's cheeky late-night host has any place on a news network might seem even more appalling than a comedian like O'Brien. But there's a lot more to Cohen than meets the eyeful he provides nightly talking to unreal "Housewives"; he's a former news producer and still-very-current TV programming executive who has the savvy to step outside his garishly decorated wheelhouse if need be.
As Zucker knows from having Bravo in his NBCU portfolio back in the day, Cohen appeals to an upscale, female-skewing demographic that is probably allergic to news networks. Who better to bring over in an attempt to attract a whole new audience segment?
Not saying Cohen should parachute into Benghazi. But there's plenty of other lighter news territory where he could make his mark and broaden the CNN audience, in a fashion similar to what NBC is trying by giving Ryan Seacrest time on "Today."
Lorne Michaels. No, the "Saturday Night Live" impresario has no business being on CNN in an on-air capacity. But where he could help Zucker immensely is finding talent that could straddle the news and comedy worlds as he's done on "Weekend Update" all the way fom Seth Meyers back to Chevy Chase.
As Zucker surely realizes, CNN couldn't have its own version of "The Daily Show" on its air each night. But there's no way he'll get his hands on Jon Stewart, who re-signed with Comedy Central over the summer through mid-2015, or Stephen Colbert, who is locked down almost as long. That leaves finding the next smart, newsy comedian, and that takes an experienced talent magnet like Michaels to find, groom and executive produce.
Aaron Sorkin. As Zucker can recall from the days when Sorkin delivered him NBC's brilliant "The West Wing," this guy is as intelligent and mesmerizing in person as he is on the scripted page. MSNBC's Laurence O'Donnell has proven the move from the "Wing" writers' room to the anchor chair is doable, so why not look to Sorkin to make a similar shift?
What's odd about Sorkin's latest creation, HBO's "Newsroom," is how it provides a filter through which Sorkin can voice his thoughts on what's in the news when it has already been out of the news for years. Maybe Time Warner siblings HBO and CNN can even figure out a way to do something that is "Newsroom"-branded on both nets, enabling a little cross-promotion.
Surely there's some part of Sorkin that wants a soapbox to address issues
while they're still fresh rather than channel them on delay through the
fictional alter ego of Will McAvoy.