Inside Jeff Zucker’s plan to save CNN

Ann Curry: soon to be a free agent.
Ann Curry: soon to be a free agent.
Image: Getty Images/Ilya S. Savenok
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PASADENA, CALIF. – A year after taking over as CNN Worldwide president, Jeff Zucker spoke Friday, Jan. 10 at the Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour about his plans to right the ship at the flagging news network. While proclaiming that “CNN is not and never will abandon our first and fundamental brand equity, which is news and breaking news,” he detailed the ways in which the network will continue to evolve under his watch:

Keep news front and center. While Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes recently told The Hollywood Reporter that CNN was “out of the news business,” Zucker said that covering news “is the most important thing we do. We want to remain essential in news.”

Be passionate, not partisan. While Fox News and MSNBC have found their niches on opposite ends of the political spectrum, Zucker vows that CNN will not follow suit. “In the cable news arena, you have two partisan networks looking out for their viewers,” he said. “I think CNN needs to look out for the rest of us.” That said, Zucker admitted that CNN’s programming needs “a little more passion,” explaining that it should “be passionate and advocate for the viewer, but not take a political point of view.”

Shore up primetime. Admitting that CNN makes a smaller profit in primetime than MSNBC and Fox News, Zucker said, “Do we want to do better between 8 and 11? Yes!” One possible target for a primetime shakeup: Piers Morgan Live. Zucker said he could ultimately see Piers “maybe in a different role, I don’t know. I don’t want to presuppose anything.” But whatever happens, he insisted, “Piers will continue to be part of CNN.”

Stay out of late-night. Despite reports that the former NBC Universal president is looking to reunite with Jay Leno after he departs The Tonight Show on Feb. 6, Zucker says that a late-night comedy show is “really not a priority for us at this time” and is “really not in the cards anytime soon.”

Pursue Ann Curry. Zucker, who made his bones by steering Today atop the ratings back the early ’90s, chose his words carefully when asked about wooing ousted Today co-host Ann Curry to CNN. Calling her “a terrific talent,” he noted, “she’s under contract; she’s not available at this time.” However, “if she were ever available, that’s something I would certainly look at.” That time will come soon, as her current NBC News deal has an opening and Curry is already putting out feelers.

Add more documentaries and series. After debuting three series last year, Zucker says that eight are planned for 2014. Shows like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Morgan Spurlock’s Inside Man “are really where we want to be,” said Zucker. On tap for 2014: Death Row Stories, an eight-part series about the death penalty, and The Sixties, focusing on how that decade changed the world. Zucker has also ordered more documentaries following the success of Blackfish, which looked at SeaWorld’s treatment of killer whales. The new programming is also expanding CNN’s potential advertisers. “The cable news advertiser audience is a limited pool,” said Zucker. “So by doing series and the films, we’re actually opening ourselves up to a much larger advertising pool.”

Above all, be patient. While admitting that “I’m more impatient than everybody,” Zucker said that turning CNN’s fortunes around will take time. To those demanding immediate ratings improvement, “it just does not work that way,” he said, explaining that in the six months that his morning show New Day has been on the air, he was happy to simply close the gap between MSNBC’s Morning Joe from 80,000 viewers to 30,000. When he took over Today back in 1992, he pointed out, it took him two years to get the show to first place, and Bill O’Reilly’s hit Fox News show, The O’Reilly Factor, “got no ratings for its first three years on the air.”