Jeff Zucker cut his teeth on the Today Show and considering his time at NBC this is the least surprising news ever. It’s obvious that CNN has no future as a news network.
So there’s going to be more attitude. And a lot more gotcha “documentaries” and some reality shows.
Zucker came in promising to “broaden the definition of news”. Considering that news today already consists of so many cat videos, celebrity scandals and web morality mobs that it’s indistinguishable from Buzzfeed most of the time… that isn’t good news for news.
When Jeff Zucker was named president of the troubled CNN in November 2012, he noted that its competition not only was Fox News and MSNBC but “anybody that competes for eyeballs” in the “nonfiction” space. The key, he said, is to “broaden [the] definition of news.”
A year later, Zucker is succeeding in that mandate; reality shows and documentaries are bringing new viewers to CNN. But its bread-and-butter programming still is a work in progress. And recent ratings lows — October coverage of the Obamacare website mess gave CNN its worst weekly tune-in in more than a year with only 95,000 viewers in the critical 25-to-54 demographic — have underscored the challenges of creating appointment TV out of the daily churn of the news cycle.
When you bring in a Today Show guy, he’s obviously not going to fix your news programming. Instead he’s going to turn you into something that isn’t really a news network, but still kinda looks like one.
Zucker isn’t even running off a new idea. Most cable channels no longer do what their name says. The classics channels do original programming. The wildlife and history channels (Discovery network) do reality shows. The SciFi channel does cooking shows. MSNBC accuses everyone and their grandmother of racism. What used to be the Nashville Network airs video game coverage as Spike TV.
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.”
Zucker explicitly namechecks the Discovery trash pile. And why wouldn’t he? It’s a hugely successful trash pile. But let’s translate that from execspeak.
“People who traditionally just watch the cable news networks [are] worthless and vanishing,” he said. “Maybe we can hang on to some of them, but I’m looking at the future. The overall cable news audience has not grown in the last 12 years, OK? So, all we’re doing is trading [audience] share. … We’re changing the CNN brand to be fun, exciting, controversial and with attitude.”
Speaking of attitude.
Instead, he wants more of “an attitude and a take”
CNN anchors will now wear backward baseball caps and skateboard around the studio.
“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 told Capital New York reporters. “The goal for the next six months, is that we need more shows and less newscasts.”
More shows. Less news.
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.”
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.”
Goodbye news. Hello reality television. Goodbye CNN.