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How Jeff Zucker Made CNN Great Again

It’s the second day of the Democratic National Convention, and Jeff Zucker is huddled with his CNN staff on the ground in Philadelphia. Unlike most cable news network chiefs, he is painstakingly involved with the minutiae of hourly coverage, from producing debates to running the channel’s daily editorial meeting. His leadership style could be best described as a zealous professor of a political theory class, pushing his producers for smarter takes on stories. Today, he’s assuming the role of decider-in-chief in CNN’s office — a makeshift trailer adjacent to the convention gates, where, in just a few hours, the delegates will crown Hillary Clinton as the party’s first female presidential candidate.

Melissa GoldeN for Variety

Although it’s a sweltering 90 degrees outside, Zucker doesn’t break a sweat in the morning meeting. He wishes a colleague happy birthday before recapping the previous night’s coverage, and praises his team for keeping the cameras on the stage. “There’s a tendency for television networks to interrupt the program for additional commentary,” Zucker later explains to Variety. “The audience would rather see what’s happening.” He believes there’s time for more analysis in the post-convention hours. “As I like to say,” Zucker adds with a smirk, “we’re never off the air.”

While Zucker hasn’t exactly been “off the air” since becoming president of CNN Worldwide in 2013, the intense, bespectacled 51-year-old executive has largely flown under the radar. In person, Zucker cracks jokes, with a biting humor. But as CNN chief, he keeps his personal thoughts about world events private–he doesn’t even tweet. “Probably to protect myself,” Zucker says. “If I was on Twitter, I’d probably get in trouble pretty quickly.”

During his uneven and tumultuous run atop NBCUniversal, where he was ousted after the 2010 takeover by cable giant Comcast, and his subsequent brief stint as executive producer of Katie Couric’s ABC daytime talk show “Katie,”  Zucker had been a press magnet. Many in Hollywood had written him off. By design, he has kept an uncharacteristically low profile as he’s fought to give CNN a much-needed makeover during the past 3½ years.

In one of his first major sit-down interviews since taking the reins at CNN, Zucker was often cautious in his answers. He refused to bite on a question about whether he thought the abrupt exit of Roger Ailes last month, following a string of sexual-harassment allegations, would give CNN a decided edge over its biggest rival, Fox News. “It’s certainly not something we expected to happen,” was all he would say. “We’re going to continue to be focused on what we’re doing.”

Under Zucker’s reign, the news network has become the second most-watched cable news channel on TV, ahead of MSNBC and closing the gap with Fox News. And during the broadcast coverage block of both the Democratic and Republican conventions, CNN topped its cable rivals and the big-three broadcasters in overall viewers. It averaged 5.5 million viewers a night, ahead of Fox News (4.9 million) and MSNBC (3.6 million), as well as NBC (4.6 million), ABC (3.5 million), and CBS (3.1 million).

These numbers continue what has been a very strong year for CNN, particularly in the key 25-54 demo. “We’ve got our largest share of the primetime audience in 15 years,” Zucker says on an early July afternoon from CNN’s Manhattan headquarters in Columbus Circle. “We’re within 2 share points of Fox.”

John Martin, CEO of CNN parent Turner Broadcasting, praises Zucker for turning the network around. “CNN is going to have a record year in terms of revenues and profits,” he says. Such success has allowed Turner to grow CNN’s staff and resources. Martin is less reluctant than Zucker to speculate on whether CNN will eclipse Fox News. “It’s a question of when, not if,” he says.

Political Junkies: CNN’s convention coverage was the most-watched of any network
Melissa Golden for Variety

At his New York headquarters, Zucker works from a modest office — with an open-door policy — on the CNN newsroom floor. He has 11 TVs mounted on the wall, so he can keep track of his competitors, and he’s such a news junkie, he reads six daily papers in print. (He displays a framed tweet by Donald Trump complimenting CNN, written many months ago.)

A native of Florida, Zucker has always been a journalist. In high school, he freelanced for The Miami Herald, and in college, he served as president of The Harvard Crimson. After graduating in the mid-1980s, he landed a researcher job at NBC, where he quickly rose to executive producer on “Today.”

When he was hired by CNN, there was a lot at stake for both him and the network, which had lacked pizzazz and lagged behind its rivals. “It felt like the spare tire in your trunk that you only took out when you really needed it,” Zucker says. “There was no real reason to go there except in an emergency.” The network languished in a permanent third place. Around-the-clock news coverage was a revolutionary idea when Ted Turner debuted CNN in 1980. But the internet, which offers breaking news in real time (and on your phone), made CNN look like a dinosaur.

CNN’s comeback story is a dual narrative, for both its leader and its employees. Many staff members talk about CNN as two distinct epochs: pre- and post-Zucker. They say that morale was low before, whereas now everybody is invigorated. “He’s changed the attitude at CNN,” says anchor Erin Burnett. “Everyone feels that they can win.” Not the least of whom is Zucker. When Comcast purged him from his executive suite after acquiring NBCUniversal, the former wunderkind producer who gave “Today” its edge couldn’t rescue NBC’s primetime lineup. His much-touted decision to move Jay Leno to 10 p.m. and embrace reality TV over scripted series backfired badly and earned him the ire of talent and their agents.

“I don’t think Vice and Buzzfeed are legitimate news organizations. They are native advertising shops. We crush both of them.”
Jeff Zucker

This time, as Zucker designed a blueprint to rejuvenate CNN, he opted not to publicly hype his three-pronged attack plan. Step one: Build up the digital team, by eventually investing $20 million on reporters and technology. Step two: Greenlight original series and documentaries to program during slower news cycles. Finally — and most important — step three: CNN’s domestic TV arm would embrace the concept of “flooding the zone,” meaning reporters were encouraged to stick with, and “own,” the big story of the news cycle, rather than zigzagging from one breaking alert to the next. “I thought we got off stories too quickly,” Zucker says. “I’m a big believer in if something is good, people are going to stay with us.”

It was an idea that was widely ridiculed during CNN’s coverage in 2014 of the missing Malaysian airliner. But it paid off in the long run as the news cycle shifted to more weighty events like the election and global terrorism. “Jeff has revitalized the channel,” says Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News. “What might have drawn mockery when he was covering the Malaysian jet is in fact a working strategy.”

Under Zucker’s watch, CNN is taking its viewers’ obsession with the election seriously. The conventions followed months of pre-planning that kicked off last winter with town halls and debates, which Zucker oversaw and kept expanding. “Look, one of the reasons I came here is that I love producing television,” he says. He has armed his anchors with so much debate prep, it’s almost like they are the ones running for office. “It’s a team effort,” Anderson Cooper says. “I’ve moderated debates in prior election cycles, but there wasn’t that same level of attention and thought.”

Among the other changes Zucker has brought to CNN: adding “New Day” as a morning show; making the network’s ads more sophisticated (the plugs for Trump vs. Clinton resemble a primetime network drama); and poaching Jake Tapper from ABC for political coverage. “Since Charlie Gibson retired and Ted Koppel left and Peter Jennings died, I have not had a boss so focused and devoted to the news,” Tapper says. Zucker also moved Don Lemon from weekends in Atlanta to a nightly hour of primetime in New York. “We needed to be relevant again,” Lemon says. “We needed to have fans. People who don’t even know me, they walk up to me in the street. They talk about CNN. It’s a great place to be.”

Some of CNN’s naysayers complain that the network leans too heavily on stories that grab eyeballs. But Zucker argues that he doesn’t need to choose between ratings and less-splashy journalism. “There’s a misconception we’re doing this all for ratings,” he says. “We’re covering all of the news. It’s just not necessarily on television anymore.” He points to online stories of world events that may not make the daily broadcast for CNN’s U.S. airwaves, and CNN International employs a robust team of reporters all over the world. “We run a very profitable international business and are pleased about that,” says Tony Maddox, the managing director of CNN International.

Then again, this election has been tailor-made for Zucker’s strengths as a savant producer. At NBC, he launched Trump’s entertainment career by greenlighting “The Apprentice.” You could argue that if Trump hadn’t been in so many homes, playing a leader, voters wouldn’t be as comfortable with the idea of him doing it for real. “I do think it helped him,” Zucker says. “He was in a field of 17 people, and as a result, his celebrity gave him greater recognition.” But even with their history, Trump has been bashing CNN just like he has every other media outlet. “It doesn’t bother me,” Zucker says of the attacks. “If everybody is a little upset at the end of the day, we’re probably doing our job.”

Zucker, who lives in New York, worked for his high school newspaper in Miami, ran The Harvard Crimson, and, after graduation, ended up at NBC, where he quickly rose to executive producer on “Today.”
Melissa Golden for Variety

Part of that job, per Zucker’s mandate, also has been to make CNN feel fair to viewers in red states. “What Jeff has done is bring a lot of diversity to the network that didn’t exist before,” says Turner’s Martin. “You’re seeing diversity on-air — diversity of opinion.” Zucker has boosted the number of conservative commentators at CNN, and tries to keep the coverage impartial. “I think our air, as opposed to others’, is truly fair and balanced,” Zucker says.

In June, CNN raised eyebrows when it added Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to its payroll as a commentator. “The reason we hired Corey is that now that we are in the general election, I think it’s really important to have voices on CNN who are supportive of the Republican nominee,” says Zucker. “It’s hard to find a lot of those. Our competitors tried to hire him too.” Zucker doesn’t agree with criticism that Lewandowski is offering talking points instead of analysis. “I actually think he’s done a really nice job,” Zucker says. “He’s come under a much greater spotlight because of who he is, and the relationship he’s had with the media. As a result, people are going to be more critical.”

Beyond the election, CNN has flexed its muscles covering major breaking news such as Brexit, the Dallas police-officer shootings, and the Orlando nightclub massacre. Cooper was in London on vacation when he read about the 49 casualties in Florida. “I’d like to come back,” he recalls saying, and boarded the next plane. The image of Cooper fighting back tears as he interviewed the victims’ families was one of the most sustaining images to emerge from the tragedy. TV news anchors are taught to stay emotionally distant from the stories they cover, but Zucker encourages them to be real. “I want them to be human,” he says. “If he’s choking up, I’m probably choking up. I don’t want robots. If we wanted robots, we’d go hire robots.”

When asked if he’d share Cooper with ABC if Kelly Ripa wants the anchor to be the co-host of “Live!,” Zucker deflects the question. “I think it’s premature to deal with hypotheticals,” he says.

Like the network he runs, Zucker is usually up all night. He often sleeps for only five hours. “I can’t sleep more,” he says. “I wish I could.” Foreign correspondent Clarissa Ward, who left “60 Minutes” for CNN, has received emails from him at 4 a.m. in New York, telling her, “Hey, looks like things are going well.” She recalls thinking, “Why are you awake?” And while he’s up, he is usually somewhere near a CNN screen. “I watch a ton of CNN,” Zucker says.

TV performance is just part of the company’s success story. Its digital unit is also formidable, made stronger by the inceased investment in journalists and technology. According to comScore, CNN Digital landed 116 million unique visitors in June, topping all other news outlets, including Yahoo News (100 million), BuzzFeed (78 million), and The New York Times (75 million). That same month, CNN saw 292 million video starts, more than any other news site. “When Jeff talks about CNN, he doesn’t talk about it as a television network,” says Andrew Morse, the general manager of CNN Digital Worldwide. “He talks about it as a 21st-century media company.”

The online news landscape is crowded. But Zucker doesn’t view the new players in the field as competitors. “I don’t think Vice and BuzzFeed are legitimate news organizations,” he says. What would he call them? “They are,” he says with a mischievous grin, “native advertising shops. We crush both of them. They are not even in our same class.”

CNN has started its own digital company targeted to millennials. It’s called “Great Big Story,” the only product the network has ever launched without its trademark letters. GBS has its own logo — a red rocket ship. The focus of the entity, which debuted in October, is to tell narratives from around the world; its 500 or so videos have been shot in 42 countries. “It’s not news,” says Chris Berend, senior vice president of video and co-founder (with Morse) of GBS. “It’s storytelling.” While still in its start-up phase, GBS is expected to turn a profit through sponsored content.

Wrapping It Up: CNN’s Wolf Blitzer delivers commentary at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Zucker prefers to cut to analysis only after the live event has run its course.
Greg E. Mathieson Sr./REX/Shutterstock

As for other online coverage, CNN’s digital platforms are integrated with the brand. And increasingly — with Zucker’s vision for CNN being a single integrated newsroom — the organization is seeking out journalists like media-savvy reporter Brian Stelter to cross the bridge between TV and digital.

“We’re not in the clickbait business,” says Morse. Even so, some content still runs counter to that notion, like a story that was tweeted over the summer: “What to do when your son’s armpits smell like rotten cauliflower.” “I’m surprised we did that story,” Morse says. “That’s not what our goal and ambition is.”

The other storytelling that’s become part of CNN’s fabric is delivered via original series and films. Zucker has been championing series like Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” even though it’s not a traditional news show. “I think at our best we add depth and character to the news,” Bourdain says. “If you see something bad happen in a country, it’s nice to know more about it beforehand, to know who is involved.”

Another early Zucker initiative was approving the purchase of the 2013 SeaWorld documentary “Blackfish,” which became a hit, airing 28 times to 28 million viewers. Now, CNN is among the more coveted distributors scooping up hot documentaries on the film festival circuit. “We’ve demonstrated we can give a film a great showcase,” says Amy Entelis, the network’s executive vice president of talent and content development. “A film can have a long life on CNN.”

While many households are glued to CNN now, the question is how the network can maintain its strong momentum after the election. Zucker already has a contingency plan in place. After November, he says, CNN will rely on 13 original series and six films to carry some of the slower periods for news. But, true to his non-nonsense style, he’s certain viewership will head in only one direction. “The ratings are going to go down,” he admits. “That’s the way it is. It’s not about comparing 2016 to 2017. It’s about where we were before 2016 began.”

Zucker didn’t have to return to TV after leaving NBC, and there were rumors that he could exit his CNN post next year, when his contract expires, to run for mayor of New York. But he downplays such speculation. “As long as I’m happy, I’ll be here,” Zucker says. “The mayor thing was completely taken out of context. I don’t think that’s in the current cards.” Indeed, Zucker has found a role that keeps him energized. “I’m very happy,” he says. “If you love television and you love news, CNN is the perfect place to be.”

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