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CNN’s Jeff Zucker on Partisan Cable Nets, Bieber Coverage and Leno Prospects

CNN topper shoots down rumors that Jay Leno will transition to the cable news net after upcoming NBC departure

“If we rely just on breaking news, that’s probably not a long-term game.”

CNN prez Jeff Zucker opened his RealScreen Summit keynote with those words, emphasizing a “new vision” for the cable news net that expands beyond CNN’s core biz of breaking news, and into the unscripted space with docuseries and films.

He also defended the network against criticism that it went overboard on last week’s coverage of the Justin Bieber arrest, noting CNN still devotes plenty of airtime to more substantive subjects.

“No news organization is perfect, and CNN is not always perfect,” he said. “But I think we had this right. We did cover the Bieber story, and I’m not going to apologize for what we did.”

The strategy has borne fruit thus far, with award-winning docuseries “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” currently ranking as the cabler’s top program, and “Morgan Spurlock: Inside Man” also being a solid ratings draw. Adding this brand of nonfiction to CNN’s lineup has opened up the gates to not only younger demos, but also a fresh group of advertisers who perhaps had not considered getting into biz with cable news nets in the past, per Zucker.

Zucker’s presence at the unscripted confab’s first full day in D.C. certainly represents CNN’s push into the reality space, one that will include at least eight docuseries and 10 films in 2014, some of which have not been announced. The prez also hinted that the 10 p.m. primetime slot on CNN — often filled with repeat newscasts — could become home to original unscripted content in the coming months.

“We’re never going to stray from breaking news,” Zucker told the ballroom filled with nonfiction biz members during his keynote, moderated by “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter. “But I think we also have recognized that there are many ways for people to get their news these days.”

“We want to broaden out our offerings to the public, and we have moved into the nonfiction world with some success thus far,” he continued. “We thought [RealScreen] was the perfect place to come talk about it.”

Zucker praised “Parts Unknown’s” ability to both inform and entertain, citing that as the key factor in what the cable news net is looking for when it comes to fresh unscripted content. For a ballroom filled with producers seeking for homes for their reality projects, Zucker’s outline of CNN’s aesthetic was must-have info.

“We’re not looking for competition reality programs, or unscripted reality programs that are so successful on other networks…I love the entire ‘Housewives’ franchise, it was a big part of our success at NBCU, but that wouldn’t fit at CNN.”

He continued, “We report from Israel all the time. We have several reports a day from there. Anthony goes to Israel [on ‘Parts Unknown’], and I learn more from that one hour through the way he tells the story — through food, travel and meeting people — than I often do from most of our reporting that comes out of there. That’s not to belittle our news coverage…But it’s a different type of storytelling that’s incredibly informative and entertaining.”

Even as his network expands into original unscripted programming, Zucker emphasized CNN’s “commitment to news,” noting that CNN “provides more news coverage on a daily basis than any other TV network in America.”

CNN’s prez also stated that the network has grown even more “essential” to American auds in recent years, given that other cable news nets including Fox News and MSNBC are now “highly partisan” and “politically motivated.”

Nevertheless, CNN has taken heat in recent months for its coverage of sensational headlines, such as last week’s arrest of Justin Bieber, which included a half-hour special on the scandal along with a strong presence on CNN.com and breaking news text messages updating subscribers on the Bieber situation. Zucker was quick to defend his network’s coverage of the arrest.

“I’m incredibly comfortable with the way CNN covered the Justin Bieber story,” Zucker said. “It’s easy to pick on that coverage, and what people often do is they cover the Bieber story by deriding what other people are doing. That’s their way in. The Bieber coverage was never wall-to-wall…I don’t think CNN had it out of proportion at all. When you take the whole of what we do, it’s completely in the right proportion.”

The prez added, “We devoted almost 24 hours to what happened in Maryland here Saturday…Yesterday, we had two hours of interview with [leaders from Japan, Iran and Egypt]…No other news organization had anywhere near the same amount of coverage. But you don’t ask me about that, because it’s more interesting to ask about Bieber than what’s going on in Iran. CNN is about interviewing world leaders, and covering what happened in Maryland, and about Anthony Bourdain, and about Justin Bieber. We have the ability to do all of that.”

Zucker was also asked about Jay Leno, and rumors that the latenight vet would migrate to CNN after his tenure as NBC’s “Tonight Show” host ends next week. Zucker quipped that anybody who he once worked with at the Peacock whose contract is up ends up rumored to be heading to CNN, but quickly shot down the notion that Leno will be heading to the cable news net.

“Jay is an enormous talent, but it’s just not in the cards,” he said. “It’s not something we’re thinking about right now.”

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