Zucker aims to broaden focus of CNN

Pledges to broaden programming while staying respectful of brand

Jeff Zucker pledged to broaden the definition of news programming at CNN while respecting the brand’s core journalistic values in a conference call with reporters Thursday following the official announcement of his appointment as president of CNN Worldwide.

Zucker sought to reframe the competitive set beyond the two news networks with which CNN is compared most, Fox News Channel and MSNBC. To wit, he emphasized that he does not envision applying a politically partisan approach to the content in CNN’s primetime block, a strategy that’s paid off for its TV rivals. “I think the key is that CNN remain true to its standards of great journalism but, at the same time, be vibrant and exciting,” he said. “Just because you’re not partisan doesn’t mean that you can’t be exciting.”

Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent, who led the search for the replacement for outgoing CNN chief Jim Walton, compared what CNN could be in the future to a daily newspaper that covers a broader variety of subjects. “News is not just about politics and war, and that’s something you’ll see us give a lot of thought to as well,” Kent said.

While acknowledging that he wanted to improve CNN’s ratings vs. its news competitors, Zucker tried to de-emphasize audience measurement as the be-and-end-all of his future effort. His mission, he explained, is to make CNN relevant to a core fanbase that would want to tune in for longer durations than CNN historically attracts and on as many days of the week as possible.

“There’s no question that ratings are part of the story, but certainly with my background, I’m fully aware that ratings are not what necessarily defines health and success of this business,” he said, referring to advertisers and pay TV affiliates.

Zucker compared CNN to unspecified networks specializing in nonfiction programming, which is where he’s looking to expand the brand. At one point, he cited the net’s upcoming new weekend program featuring Anthony Bourdain as emblematic of the fresh thinking he wanted to bring to the company.

“The definition of news is broader than what has historically been brought about here,” he said.

Kent nixed the notion that CNN was facing any kind of restructuring of its global workforce, though he said Zucker would be encouraged to reallocate resources as he saw fit. In addition, he mentioned that CNN hasn’t dismissed the idea of partnering with other networks, as it has mulled doing in the past, but that it wasn’t currently anywhere “on the radar.”

While Zucker and Kent were short on specific fixes they intended for CNN, they made a point of noting two priorities in addition to repairing the state of the network’s lagging primetime lineup: CNN’s morning fare and its sister network, HLN, which has been competitive to CNN in both a.m. and p.m. blocks.

“It’s an interesting intellectual challenge what CNN should be doing different in the morning early hours from its cable competitors and three broadcast networks,” Kent said. “In all frankness, that’s a thought exercise we never did enough of.”

With reporters on the conference call repeatedly citing Zucker’s failures on the entertainment side of the business in his various positions at NBCUniversal, Kent defended his new hire. “I think asking Jeff today about things that might have gone differently in his background as an entertainment executive is just not relevant,” he said.

Zucker acknowledged those mistakes without getting into specifics but also said they provided learning experiences that made him a better manager. “There’s no doubt that I made mistakes in the entertainment world, and I own those,” he said, adding that he felt he did his best work on the news side of NBCUniversal. “But I feel really excited to return to daily news both on TV and in digital.”