Jeff Zucker talks CNN’s post-plane plans

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Jeff Zucker (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, file)
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Nicole Levy

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Last night, CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker gave a hint of where the network will go next now thats its two-plus-month coverage of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 is subsiding.

"I don't think there's any question about our commitment to breaking news, as evidenced by all the questions about the plane," he told New York Times television reporter Bill Carter during an interview at the Deadline Club's annual awards dinner. "So we're still there whenever that happens, but we're going to supplement that with some different kind of storytelling."

Zucker, who said the cable news audience is not growing, is looking to other programming forms to build out its viewership.

"And so we're going to continue to service that audience, but we're also going to try to expand it by bringing other [younger] viewers who might be interested in informational based, educational, entertaining programs like 'Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown,'" he said.

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Carter asked if the network, which has been criticized for its oversight of climate change, might devote more live airtime to the subject.

"Climate change is one of those stories that deserves more attention, that we all talk about," Zucker said, "but we haven't figured out how to engage the audience in that story in a meaningful way. When we do do those stories, there does tend to be a tremendous amount of lack of interest on the audience's part."

And will it cover the special committee hearings by House Republicans to probe the 2012 Benghazi embassy attack? Zucker told Carter he didn't know yet.

"We're not going to be shamed into it by others who have political beliefs that want to try to have temper tantrums to shame other news organizations into covering something," he said. "If it's of real news value, we'll cover it."

CNN's round-the-clock coverage of the search for the missing Malaysian flight was mocked widely for its obsessiveness, and was the "so-called 777 in the room" at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in midtown, where the New York City chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists was celebrating its annual awards.

Asked whether he considered his channel's ratings-elevating coverage of the event was ever excessive, Zucker said, "If I take a step back from our coverage of the Malaysian plane's disappearance, I'm incredibly comfortable with it. I believed early on, right from the start, that it was an enormously important story: an American-made Boeing jet liner, with Rolls Royce engines with 239 people, disappears into thin air...That's why we devoted the resources that we did to it."

CNN continues to mention the story every day, Zucker said, noting that the families of the 239 people aboard the plane still ask for updates. Yesterday, CNN reported that raw satellite data about the plane's course could soon be made public.

"But were there any mistakes made?" Carter asked.

The CNN president characterized anchor Don Lemon's proposal of the theory that a black hole had swallowed the plane—a moment that seemed to crystallize the absurdity of CNN's coverage for critics—as a regrettable gaffe.

"He was being facetious, but it did not come off that way," Zucker explained. "And he knows that if he could do it over again, he wouldn't quite present it that way."