Can Jeff Zucker Save CNN's Prime Time?

Exec May Have the Aggressiveness CNN Needs, Ad Buyers Say

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Viewers and advertisers will render the final judgment if former NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker takes over CNN, but ad buyers and analysts said Wednesday morning that they were optimistic about his likely arrival.

Jeff Zucker
Jeff Zucker Credit: NBC

CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton said in July that he would step down at year's end, telling staff in an email that the network "needs new thinking." So exactly what kind of thinking Mr. Zucker would apply became a suddenly-hot parlor game Tuesday evening, when the Los Angeles Times reported that he was in "advanced negotiations" to take over the channel. A person familiar with the talks today confirmed the discussions.

While Mr. Zucker's tenure at NBC Universal, which ended nearly two years ago when Comcast bought a stake in the company, has often been criticized, ad buyers said he may have the aggressiveness necessary to hammer out a stronger identity for CNN.

"He is an incredible executive with an incredible history," said Kris Magel, exec. VP-national broadcast at Initiative . "It seems his love is news and it's where he feels most comfortable."

Mr. Zucker made a name for himself as executive producer of NBC's "Today," then the No. 1 morning show on TV, and is currently producing Katie Couric's successful new syndicated daytime talk show.

At NBC Universal, Mr. Zucker's tenure included the infamous decision to move Jay Leno to 10 p.m. in a bid to cut costs at that hour -- an effort that failed to deliver the ratings that affiliates demanded and led to a blowup with Conan O'Brien when Mr. Leno reclaimed "The Tonight Show." Mr. Zucker's reign also coincided with the decline in prime-time ratings at the peacock channel, which only this season have shown much potential for reversal.

Mr. Magel praised the risks Mr. Zucker took at NBCU, saying he made some leaps in digital. But that may not be the location of CNN's greatest need. "I don't think CNN has a brand problem or a multimedia distribution model," Mr. Magel said. "It's the core U.S. TV element that needs a boost."

CNN, the original cable-news network, is still a leader during major news events, topping both Fox News and MSNBC on election night earlier this month. But it has been stuck in third place in prime time behind cable-news rivals Fox News and MSNBC, falling to its lowest ratings since 1991 in the second quarter of this year. CNN has been adamant about sticking to its roots in nonpartisan news reporting, a contrast with competitors that have thrived on a mix of news and opinion.

The problem is that it's been unable to find personalities and programming to attract viewers on a consistent basis and during slow news cycles. It brought in former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, for example, only to cancel his show after nine months.

CNN is now looking to add more lifestyle programming, hiring Anthony Bourdain for a travel and food show to air on the weekends in 2013.

But perhaps CNN's next president -- and the bosses at Turner Broadcasting and parent Time Warner -- shouldn't obsess too much over U.S. ratings points in any case. "CNN is not in as bad of a state as people think it is ," said Brian Wieser, analyst at Pivotal Research. "Ratings are just one barometer. Glenn Beck could have the highest ratings when he was on Fox News, but couldn't get advertisers. CNN is still a well-regarded advertising property."

"Mr. Zucker is an inspired choice," Mr. Wieser added.

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