Analysis: For hint of new CNN, look to ABC

Jeff Zucker's hire another sign of changes in tone, focus for TV news

News purists and journalism profs fretting about the future of CNN in the wake of its latest management shift should look with a wary eye toward ABC.

Jeff Zucker didn’t say much, understandably, during a conference call Thursday confirming his appointment as chief of CNN Worldwide, but a couple of his comments sounded strangely familiar. That’s because they partly echoed Ben Sherwood, the president of ABC News, which has enjoyed considerable success ratings-wise through a softening of its product.

During a TV Critics Assn. tour event earlier this year, Sherwood rejected the notion of distinguishing “hard” from “soft” news, saying the only criteria involved compelling product and “the relevance of the news in real people’s lives.”

Those parameters, of course, have allowed ABC to veer off into some questionable directions, at times turning “Good Morning America” into a wacky morning zoo and indulging in boundary-bending exercises that wouldn’t look out of place on A&E or Discovery, like “Beyond Belief” and “What Would You Do?”

Zucker repeatedly stressed maintaining CNN’s journalistic values, but he, too, spoke of “broadening that definition of what news is” and the need to compete with “anyone who produces nonfiction programming.”

The goal, he said, is to respect CNN’s tradition, “but not always being bound by it.”

Practically speaking, if a primary objective hinges on improving the network’s performance in primetime, that’s a perfectly logical strategy. The problem is attempts to rival the appeal of “nonfiction programming” — a category so broad as to encompass reality shows that have virtually nothing to do with reality — raise red flags about forays that have triggered criticism in the past, while highlighting the delicate balancing act any effort to “fix” CNN entails.

Zucker’s boss, Turner Broadcasting chairman-CEO Phil Kent, opened the call by stressing that CNN “stands for journalism.” Yet the news in its name is bookended by “cable” and “network,” which underscores the demands of showbiz and ratings also inherent in the mission.

Recalling his often-stormy tenure at NBC — which saw him rise out of the news division to run the entire operation — Zucker wasn’t wrong saying “the best years of my career were spent as a journalist, and in news,” including the stint at the “Today” show that launched him.

Ultimately, though, Zucker has always been as much a pragmatist as anything else, someone who prided the fact when producing “Today” he made dozens of decisions every hour, and if one didn’t work, you simply went on to the next.

Pragmatism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and CNN has made enough missteps prior to his arrival that hand-wringing about upholding its “tradition” (hello, holograms and “Magic Wall”) would invariably be overblown.

In that context, even Zucker’s vague description of his priorities leaves him with considerable latitude.

And for people who care about journalism, and CNN’s standing within it, that’s both potentially the good news and the bad news.