Zucker plans massive change at CNN

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Zucker and his talent. (Graphic by Peter Lettre)
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Mike Allen

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After almost a year of tinkering, CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker has concluded that a news channel cannot subsist on news alone.

So he is planning much broader changes for the network—including a prime-time shakeup that’s likely to make CNN traditionalists cringe.

Once, CNN’s vanilla coverage was a point of pride. Now, the boss boasts about the ratings for his unscripted series, and documentaries like the Sea World-slamming film Blackfish. Zucker, in his first one-on-one interview since taking control of CNN last January, told Capital he wants news coverage “that is just not being so obvious.”

Instead, he wants more of “an attitude and a take”:

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“We're all regurgitating the same information. I want people to say, ‘You know what? That was interesting. I hadn't thought of that,’” Zucker said. “The goal for the next six months, is that we need more shows and less newscasts.”

Zucker—“rhymes with hooker,” he likes to say—also expanded on comments he has made about breaking CNN out of a mindset created by historic rivalries with MSNBC and Fox. He wants the network to attract “viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E.”

“People who traditionally just watch the cable news networks [are] a great audience,” he said. “I'm not trying to alienate that audience. But the overall cable news audience has not grown in the last 12 years, OK? So, all we're doing is trading [audience] share. … We also want to broaden what people can expect from CNN.”

The 48-year-old Zucker initially faced internal resistance to his experiments beyond the realm of hard news, but he now has an irrefutable retort: The No. 1 show on CNN is now “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” a travel-adventure show featuring the bad-boy celebrity chef. Zucker said that inside CNN, his formula has finally been accepted “because people have seen the results.”

Zucker is ramping up changes across the massive organization, some subtle and some extreme.

More series and films untethered to the news and produced by outside production companies will get runs in primetime: “Yes, there will be more and, yes, they will not just be on Sundays…," he said. "I think it will expand past just the weekends, and so there's a little piece of news for you… This is a primetime play. It's too expensive to confine it to weekends.”

Among the prime-time possibilities he is considering at CNN: half-hour shows, perhaps including one for Bill Weir, recently hired from ABC.

“Honestly, there is not a piece of paper that has the lineup on it right now,” he said.

HLN–the former Headline News–will be “rethought, reimagined, and rebranded” to get away from the wall-to-wall courthouse coverage that earned HLN massive viewership during big events like the Jodi Arias and George Zimmerman trials. HLN “really just had a great year from an audience standpoint,” he said, but: "it's not as strong a business proposition, and it's not really what advertisers are looking for. If we wanted to be in the court business, Time Warner would have kept Court TV.” 

He tapped veteran TV executive Albie Hecht to lead the changes at HLN.

“His mandate is to figure out the white space for yet another cable news network in a world where headlines are ubiquitous on whatever mobile device you choose to use,” Zucker said.

Zucker said he is in the middle of “reinvigorating” CNN International with more news and more news programs, to replace sponsored content.

Zucker leads each day’s 9 a.m. editorial call – a duty his predecessor, Jim Walton, delegated. After an embarrassing on-air mistake the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, Zucker has made a point of preaching caution over speed in the channel's breaking-news reporting.

WITH A SMALL OFFICE IN CNN'S FIFTH-FLOOR newsroom, Zucker is far removed from the executive suites on the upper levels of the Time Warner Center. The room is small and sparse for an office of someone at his level. Except for a “CNN Miami” hat—a token from his childhood in South Florida—and some stacks of papers, a few trinkets and a gift bag filled with CNN swag, the room is mostly empty.

But there are 11 TV screens lining the walls of his office. One of them used to be tuned to CNBC but has since gotten the boot, replaced by CNN.com. It's a small sign of his increasing mandate to focus on digital news.

For months, he has been working on combining “our legacy television newsroom and our digital newsroom.”

“This weekend, we had more people learn about [Fast & Furious actor] Paul Walker's death from our mobile products than from our desktop products, which was the first time that something like that had happened,” Zucker said.

For now, the cable channel brings in the money. But increasing resources and mindshare are going to other platforms.

“Television is still our bread and butter today, but digital will continue to be more important every day going forward,” he said. “The majority of our time is still spent on television, but much more—an increasing amount every day—is spent on digital.”

To that end, Zucker said, CNN is developing “a suite of new products” that will provide dual-screen experiences for cable subscribers.

“There's a reorientation of the organization that we're in the process of: understanding the importance going forward of digital and, in particular, mobile and video,” he said. “Are the revenues there, the way we want them today to be? No. But are they growing? Yes.”

New hires—including Brian Stelter from The New York Times, hired last month to cover media and host CNN’s weekly “Reliable Sources”—are being brought in for roles that “are as much digital as they are television,” Zucker said.

“We’re in the video game already,” he said. “So shifting video to a different screen is much easier for us than an organization that is a legacy print organization.”

“In five years,” Zucker continued, “mobile video consumption with three little red letters called CNN is what the future looks like. I think that there are three incredible brands in the news and information space. I think ESPN owns sports, I think the Weather Channel owns weather, and I want CNN to own news and information in the global digital video space."