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This Is Jeff Zucker’s CNN — So Far

Cabler’s new boss is hands-on as he tries to inject more life into the brand with a new program push

Sunday has long been home to TV’s most acclaimed programs, from “The Sopranos” to “Mad Men” to “Homeland.” Add an unlikely entrant to the fray: CNN.

While the Time Warner news cabler isn’t preparing a million-dollar Sunday drama, it is readying a bevy of docuseries that could broaden CNN’s image beyond that of a purveyor of straight-down-the-middle information.

On June 23, CNN will launch “Inside Man,” featuring documentarian Morgan Spurlock embedding himself in such places as a medical marijuana dispensary; and “Crimes of the Century,” a look at major misdeeds, produced by “Blade Runner” director Ridley Scott. They join the Anthony Bourdain travelogue “Parts Unknown.”

It’s the sort of stu channel-surfers might expect from Discovery or National Geographic Channel. To paraphrase James Earl Jones, the voice behind some of the news outlet’s best known promos: “This … is CNN?”

It is — under CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker, the former NBCUniversal topper who arrived in January to add flavor to an operation that has been derided as vanilla.

Fox News Channel remains dominant in total audience and the viewers between 25 and 54 preferred by advertisers, but CNN has made strides. Year to date through June 2, CNN’s total day audience increased 23% among viewers in that key demo, per Nielsen. In primetime during the week, viewers in the demo have grown by 10%.

Mobile and Web outreach are becoming more of a focus at the company, said KC Estenson, senior veep and g.m. at CNN Digital. Even newsgathering techniques have changed. “Not everything has to be a person with a microphone in front of a building,” he said.

Zucker has a reputation for experimentation and stunts. Tony Maddox, exec veep and managing director of CNN Intl. said Zucker is deeply involved in daily news meetings, considering what content fits on what type of media and allocating resources for important events, including keeping reporters on the ground for follow-up stories. “Culturally, it turned out to be a much better fit than many people might have anticipated,” Maddox said.

Indeed, much about CNN looks different, from Wolf Blitzer doing standups in Boston during recent coverage of the bombing there (the on-the-fly nature of which may have contributed to CNN’s inaccurate reports about the police investigation), or an online op-ed section.

On June 17, CNN will launch “New Day,” a morning-news show expected to be breezier than the now-defunct “American Morning.” Coca-Cola, not a traditional CNN sponsor, will be a regular advertiser, along with AT&T and Allstate, said CNN ad sales topper Greg D’Alba.

CNN is also moving more forcefully into acquiring documentary films. The network expects to air as many as 10 in 2014, up from seven this year, said Amy Entelis, senior VP of talent and content development. “We are definitely competing with a different set of networks when we do this,” she added.

CNN’s challenges are well known: While Fox News Channel and MSNBC have seen ratings grow over the years by focusing on politics from a partisan perspective, CNN has remained centrist and lost oomph, particularly in primetime.

CNN keeps “changing programs and changing hosts and bringing in new people, and they are still looking up to Fox News,” said Sam Armando, senior veep at media-research firm SMGx.

Rather than cresting with breaking news, CNN needs to keep a more constant pool of viewers, he said. The solution, suggested Andrew Heyward, a media consultant and former prez of CBS News, is “to expand the definition of news (by) taking people to interesting places and seeing the world through the eyes of intelligent observers.”

Under Zucker, the turnaround formula is equal parts nonfi ction and hard news. As Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, describes it: “Smart, highend, well-produced longform programming that fits with our mission.”

Team Zucker

CNN’s boss has already brought a slew of new faces to the cabler:

“New Day”: 6-9 a.m. ayemcast premieres June 17 with Kate Bolduan, Chris Cuomo and Michaela Pereira

“The Lead”: Jake Tapper’s daily 4 p.m. news roundup started March 18

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”: Series bowed April 14, renewed for second season

Inside Man”: Morgan Spurlock docuseries bows June 23

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