Thursday, December 6, 2012

Zucker unbound: The reinvention of CNN

THE SIREN song of change ushered in by the results of the 2012 election has been picked up by the sleep- and ratings-deprived suits at CNN. In the first of transformations at the Atlanta-based network, CNN is bringing Jeff Zucker, the programming titan who transformed  NBC’s “Today” show at the age of 26 (before eventually expanding his brief to running all of NBC Universal). Zucker begins in January at the legacy cable network whose time for a reboot is, charitably speaking, overdue.

The 47-year-old Zucker, who’ll replace the retiring Jim Walton as head of CNN Worldwide, will be about the reinvention of the network that reinvented television — back in the day. Once seen as the paragon of TV journalism at the dawn of the cable era, the brainchild of Ted Turner has been adrift for years now, saddled with a muddy, imprecise consumer-facing identity and fighting a battle to distinguish CNN from any number of younger, hungrier, edgier competitors in a mighty crowded mediascape that didn’t exist when CNN began in 1981.

Zucker’s been brought on to help CNN get its imaging mojo back, even as he and the CNN brass insist that the network’s inclination to report the news without perspective — a philosophy at odds with MSNBC and Fox News, CNN’s most aggressive challengers for ratings — won’t be changed.

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Zucker’s first job may be the biggest: giving CNN a consistent presence, a voice that runs through all the network’s personae. Today’s CNN has the feel of an earnest, well-intentioned hodgepodge, a mix of styles, personalities and reportorial rhythms that, ironically, adds up to a network with no throughline for viewers to get behind.

For CNN, the challenge is to reinvigorate the brand of being “the Most Trusted Name in News” for a new generation of viewers, one whose daily info-diet is jammed with way more than 31 flavors of perspective and attitude. “The key is that CNN remain true to its ideals of great journalism but at the same time be vibrant and exciting,” Zucker told The Associated Press on Thursday. “Just because you’re not partisan doesn’t mean you can’t be exciting.”

“I don’t want to get caught in the trap of thinking that Fox and MSNBC are our principal competition,” Zucker told Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast on Friday. “That’s way too limiting. Our competition is also Discovery, the History Channel, anyone that provides nonfiction programming.”

While that's technically true enough for a network with a truly global footprint, you’re invited not to believe all that hype. Zucker’s not taking charge of CNN in order to go head-to-head with the History Channel. The one-time wunderkind of broadcast television is faced with retooling the Current Events Channel, and a lot rides on the outcome.

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IN MANY WAYS, CNN has been producing stellar journalism that pushes outside the frame of our expectations for the network and TV in general. Besides its broad international presence — being on the ground in several world hot spots, or getting there fast, has long been a CNN trademark, symbolized now by Anderson Cooper — the network has produced several long-form projects examining the nation’s emerging demographic groups. Soledad O’Brien’s series on black and Latino Americans, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s specials on emerging health issues have set a high bar for investigative journalism.

But CNN’s talent roster otherwise skews older than its closest competitor, MSNBC. And something about the CNN style, the delivery, the look-and-feel of the programming feels off, a step or three behind its competitors. It’s not a matter of quality, and God knows, with all the players CNN fields on a given day, it’s not a question of quantity.

Admittedly, there’s no statistical metric for je ne sais quoi, but the ineffable something CNN doesn’t have is effable enough to call Zucker in to find it.

Michael Wolff, writing in The Guardian in August, seemed to grasp CNN’s issues: “The hopeless decline in prime time ratings – not the big revenue producer for the network, but the most visible part of it – has meant that, on a cyclical basis of more or less humiliation, there has been a series of hurry up, herky-jerky efforts to re-jig prime time, lending it a weird, side-show-like, always under-renovation, and heading toward the next round of embarrassing publicity, effect.”

One way to jump-start CNN may be through high-profile grabs of talent at other networks. An unidentified TV insider told The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove that Zucker might try to grab Matt Lauer, the embattled “Today” host, when his NBC contract expires in about two years. Another one speculated that Zucker could go after the much-traveled Katie Couric to replace Piers Morgan, whose talk show never caught fire after Morgan replaced Larry King in January 2011.

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Whatever he does, Zucker faces the challenge of not just rebuilding the CNN brand as a news platform, but also offering viewers diversions that still reflect the CNN ethos in a more modern way. Even straightforward delivery of the news has its showbiz aspects, and entertainment news itself has its own protocols and demands.

It’s in this department that Zucker has had problems in the past. Who can forget the debacle of Zucker replacing Conan O’Brien with Jay Leno at “The Tonight Show”? That misstep cost NBC tens of millions, and a lot of bad blood among viewers.

There’s a feeling that Zucker will focus on his strong suit: the news. “As soon as Jeff left the cocoon of news, the world became more complicated,” a veteran TV executive told Grove. “His response to Hollywood was to lash out, reject the system, decry people as idiots and dinosaurs, and insist on having his way. And he took NBC to last place. He probably feels a sense of comfort coming back to news. He’s passionate about the news, and that kind of enthusiasm is much needed and welcome.”

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MEG JAMES of the Los Angeles Times reported Monday that CNN plans to launch CNN Latino, a Spanish-language service with a broader spectrum than just news.

The project, set to begin in January, is planned as a daylong program block that will include documentaries, lifestyle shows and talk shows. It’s also a step outside CNN’s cable comfort zone; The Times reports that it will be carried on an independent L.A. station, and will be eventually carried on stations in other cities.

“We are trying to appeal to bilingual Latinos in the U.S., those who feel 100% American and 100% Latino,” said Cynthia Hudson-Fernández, general manager of CNN en Español and Hispanic strategy for CNN, to The Times. “This is an alternative to existing networks. We feel that there is a huge opportunity for this type of programming.”

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CNN, already represented in Latino households with CNN en Español (launched in 1997) as a news platform, will use CNN Latino to cover the entertainment space, with a range of syndicated programs.

All in all, it’s a full-service strategy that makes sense. The move deepens CNN’s Spanish-language programming bench and furthers its reputation as a network ready for the major ascendant demographic in America. It keeps CNN current with the competition; NBC, well-represented in the cable space by sister MSNBC, acquired Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo in 2002, and Telemundo journalists have been featured throughout the campaign on NBC and MSNBC.

Fox jumped in the game last summer with its MundoFox network, based in Los Angeles. And ABC News has a newsgathering alliance with Univision, expected next year to yield a 24-hour Spanish-language network that pitches Engish-speaking content to Latino viewers — a distinction that could give the ABC-Univision tie-up an advantage with U.S. advertisers.

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CNN's MOVE is a good beginning. But Zucker walks in the door amid a rising tide of sour numbers. Nielsen reported late last month that CNN has a lock on second place, with about 763,000 weekday prime-time viewers on average, up 2 percent from last year. Fox continues its long hold on first place, with 2.5 million weekday prime-time viewers, up smartly by 13 percent from 2011.

But the real story isn’t the raw numbers, it’s the rate of growth, and that makes MSNBC the first hurdle for CNN. Even though it’s in third place, the “Lean Forward” network is capitalizing on its own rebranding and a signature slate of on-air personalities.

MSNBC gets about 1.1 million weekday prime-time eyeball pairs ... but that’s up about 22 percent from 2011. The madness of a presidential election year certainly helped, but still: The rate of growth for MSNBC’s weekday prime-time audience tops CNN more than 10 times. It builds on what’d happened earlier — in July 2011, for example, when MSNBC beat CNN by 20 percent in prime-time, its fourth straight monthly ratings win, according to Nielsen.

The new head of CNN Worldwide has his work cut out.

Good morning, Mr. Zucker. With MSNBC already established as destination viewing, your mission, now that you have chosen to accept it, is to develop a cohesive vision for CNN; cultivate its Spanish-language presence; fashion an identity that builds on its newsgathering reputation in a highly partisan era; and cut into MSNBC’s big year-over-year increases while rebuilding the network intended to (first) challenge MSNBC — a bit like building a plane and flying it at the same time.

This honeymoon period will self-destruct sometime in January. Good luck, Jeff.

Image credits: Zucker 2010: David Shankbone, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. CNN logos, O'Brien: © 2012 Cable News Network. MSNBC logo: MSNBC/Comcast.

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