CNN's problem is bigger than ratings : It's indifference.
As Jeff Zucker, one of TV's most prolific and polarizing executives, takes over the cabler, his goal will be to give it the jolt that makes it must-see TV, to borrow a phrase from his former home, NBC.
Mr. Zucker, who will replace Jim Walton as president of the network in January, needs to make CNN "essential" to a core group of fans, said his new boss, Phil Kent, CEO of CNN parent Turner Broadcasting.
While CNN lags rivals in ratings , it typically leads during major news events, such as election night. In fact, CNN beats both Fox News and MSNBC when it comes to cumulative audience -- the total number of viewers who tune in to the channel during a month. The problem is that CNN doesn't retain those viewers during slow news cycles. And as ratings points dwindle, advertisers could start taking their money elsewhere, according to media buyers.
In 2012, CNN will bring in about $600 million in operating profit, and Time Warner said CNN has been one of the highest earnings-growth networks in its portfolio. It received a boost from the elections in November, with 1.1 million watching in prime time, a 64% jump from November 2011. But the network still lagged behind Fox News, which averaged 2.6 million viewers during prime time, a 47% jump from the previous year. MSNBC saw 1.6 million total viewers tune in, a 76% increase from last year.
Other cable-news networks seem up for the renewed fight. "[Fox News President Roger] Ailes on one side, Zucker on the other: Game on," MSNBC chief Phil Griffin told The New York Times. But for Mr. Zucker, the competition doesn't stop at traditional news networks.
"If we only look at the competition set as Fox News and MSNBC, we are making a mistake. Our competition is anyone who produces nonfiction programming," Mr. Zucker said. And yes, he clarified, that means CNN would even be going after networks such as Discovery Channel.
In revamping programming and execution, and broadening the competition beyond its core competitive set, Mr. Zucker must be careful not to alienate advertisers. "CNN needs to figure out how to change the programming without destroying the ad-sales model," one news veteran said.
Here are a few keys to his strategy.
CNN prides itself on being nonpartisan, and Mr. Zucker made it clear he has no intention of changing that .
"CNN's role in the world is more important than ever when partisan politics have been so loud," he said during a conference call after his hiring was announced. "We will remain true to the journalistic values that have always been a hallmark of CNN."
But if CNN is going to go down that middle road, it will need to make it as "exciting and sexy as the extremes," said marketing expert Adam Hanft.
Defining News Beyond 'Politics and War'
"News is not just about politics and war," Mr. Zucker said.
The network has already committed to a food-and-travel program starring celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, which will air on weekends in 2013.
"What I like about [Anthony Bourdain's show] is it begins to understand the definition of news is broader than what we traditionally think about," Mr. Zucker said.
CNN has in the past aired lifestyle shows on the weekends and is looking at boosting its "nonfiction original series." Mr. Kent said to expect more of this programming moving forward.
Mr. Zucker's success at the "Today" show, where he was credited with creating tentpoles such as its outdoor concert series, could also be tapped to revitalize CNN's morning programming.
The network's morning shows, "Early Start" and Soledad O'Brien's "Starting Point," which replaced "American Morning" earlier this year, have gotten off to a lackluster start. Mr. Kent said the network will be asking itself what it should be doing differently than its cable and broadcast competitors in the mornings.
Shaking Up Late Night
Mr. Zucker remained mum on one of the biggest rumors of late: that CNN is considering launching a late-night talk show akin to "The View." But it's hard to believe he won't experiment in this daypart, especially since he comes from the world of Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. Still, the network has to tread lightly -- especially in light of Mr. Zucker's desire to stay nonpartisan and CNN's recent missteps in that space.
"D.L. Hughley Breaks the News," a Saturday night comedy-news show launched in 2008, stirred plenty of controversy during its short five-month run and didn't sit well with advertisers.
"Whenever CNN has strayed, they've had a problem," one news veteran said. "CNN has had a hard time selling weekend and late night."