As Trump Tosses Darts at CNN, Jeff Zucker Enjoys Election Year

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Jeff Zucker
Jeff Zucker Credit: CNN

It's a Friday morning two months-minus one day until the presidential election. Earlier in the week CNN debuted a two-hour documentary special that delved into the early life, family history and business dealings of Republican nominee Donald Trump. (A similar film also aired about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.) The documentary, "All Business: The Essential Donald Trump," didn't sit well with its subject. That morning Mr. Trump took to Twitter to blast the documentary, CNN and the network's leader, Jeff Zucker.

"The documentary of me that @CNN just aired is a total waste of time," he tweeted. "I don't even know many of the people who spoke about me. A joke!"

He followed up with: "@CNN is unwatchable. Their news on me is fiction. They are a disgrace to the broadcasting industry and an arm of the Clinton campaign."

And then this: "Jeff Zucker failed @NBC and he is now failing @CNN."

Just a half hour after Mr. Trump berated Mr. Zucker on social media, the president of the news behemoth appeared unruffled. It certainly wasn't the first time Mr. Trump took a jab at the news network or Mr. Zucker and it very likely won't be the last.

Sitting in his office in Time Warner Center, where another tweet from Mr. Trump complimenting CNN is on display (".@CNN & @CNNPolitics Please thank Alisyn Camerota, David Chalian and John King for the very professional reporting of the new CNN Poll."), Mr. Zucker seemed focused on getting through the next 55 days and using the last stretch of what has been an eventful presidential race to continue to position CNN for the inevitable slower news cycles to come.

Mr. Zucker's relationship with Mr. Trump has weaved itself into the political story. Mr. Zucker was running NBC when Mr. Trump's reality show "The Apprentice" took off, and some have suggested that the two are closer today than it would seem.

Mr. Zucker has refrained from responding to Mr. Trump's attacks.

Things have certainly taken a turn for the better at CNN since Mr. Zucker took the reins in 2013. Mr. Zucker inherited a news network that was in shambles, and while he was able to start to clean things up during his first two years at the helm, the biggest gains have really been felt over the last year.

CNN so far this year has doubled its audience from 2015, averaging 1.1 million total viewers in primetime. The core 25-to-54 demo has surged 86% during the same period to 369,00 and its 18-to-49 viewership doubled to 306,000.

While election season benefits news channels in general, CNN network has widened its lead over with MSNBC, which is averaging 882,000 primetime viewers in total, up 61%; 219,000 in the 25-to-54 demo, up 53%; and 160,000 in the 18-to-49 demo, up 50%.

Still, it continues to be easily bested by Fox News. The drama surrounding the network, with long-time leader Roger Ailes departing following a sexual harassment lawsuit, hasn't impacted its performance thus far. Fox News is averaging 2.1 million total viewers in primetime, up 17%, and 402,000 viewers among 25-to-54 year olds, up 19%.

Where CNN does have a lead is with younger viewers, with Fox News averaging 285,000 viewers in the 18-to-49 demo, up 27%.

It remains to be seen whether the exit of Mr. Ailes, who spent two decades building Fox News into a powerhouse, will alter the network's strategy and create an opening for CNN.

If there is an opportunity to be had, Mr. Zucker is working to ensure CNN is situated to take advantage, as he continues to build up the network's slate of original programming and films to fill in the gaps in slow news cycles. Those are inevitable once a president is elected and we move beyond the first 100 days in office. For CNN, the question is whether it can retain the momentum of the election or whether audiences will flee once the drama has subsided.

Mr. Zucker sat down with Ad Age to discuss his expectations for CNN in 2017, Donald Trump's mean tweet and how the Fox News drama may impact CNN. This interview has been edited.

Ad Age: Things look like they are strong right now, but obviously that may not last after the election. What are your expectations post-election?

Mr. Zucker: So look, 2016 is the best year in the history of CNN both from a viewership standpoint, financial standpoint and demographic standpoint. We are closer to Fox News than we have been in eight years; more dominant over MSNBC than we have been in 11 years. It has been a fantastic year. So that's 2016. As we look ahead to 2017 we expect to have another very strong year, but we are also very realistic that the audience levels of 2017 won't be what they have been in 2016. We are very upfront about that; we are very clear about that and we are very realistic about that. Still, we expect it to be another very strong year. We think we have laid a whole new foundation at CNN with a whole new base of viewership that is much higher than when we went into the political year. And then on top of that we are going to have 12 to 14 original series that will return and become a dynamic part of our schedule again. And we think the combination of news and original series programming is unique to CNN and will allow us to stand out. So we've used this year to get ready for next year with regards to our original series and films and documentaries.

Ad Age: How are you thinking about news coverage and has that evolved during the election?

Mr. Zucker: In terms of our strategy for covering stories, we have actually brought to the political story a strategy we had developed before that of going all-in on big stories. Whether that was a missing airliner or a terrorist attack in Paris, we swarmed those stories and went all in. We actually brought that strategy to the political story, so we will continue that kind of strategic coverage on the major stories of 2017. We think we are uniquely positioned to do that because we have a worldwide news gathering operation that is second to none and resources that are second to none and an investment in news gathering both on TV and digital that no one else does.

Ad Age: Usually around an election there are some advertisers that don't want to be part of political coverage. But this year, more than ever, I am hearing more advertisers want to distance themselves from election coverage. What are you seeing?

Mr. Zucker: We have seen none of that. The fact is the demand for our election night coverage is actually already sold out. It is enormous. We see no evidence of that. There's been tremendous demand for our special election coverage.

Ad Age: How does that carry over post-election and what are you expecting as it relates to advertising?

Mr. Zucker: We experienced incredibly strong demand for CNN during the upfront and that's both for our news coverage and especially for our original series and films. We have a tremendous number of new and returning advertisers for our original series. Volkswagen returns as our presenting sponsor for the third year in a row for CNN Films. So I think that our conversations with advertisers about our multiple offerings both news and series and films plus an entire suite of digital offerings has made demand for CNN incredibly strong.

Ad Age: Ahead of the election, there was a big focus on building out original programming. What is the appetite for original series and films?

Mr. Zucker: Its been tremendous. What that has done is that has opened up the ability to talk to non-traditional news advertisers in a way that didn't exist before. [CNN says it brought in more than 110 new advertisers since it began its original series, defining "new advertisers" as marketers that hadn't advertised on the network for at least three years.]

So there's been tremendous interest in that so that is one of the reasons we did that. We did it to make sure CNN wasn't vulnerable to slower periods in the news cycle, we did it because we live in a more on-demand world and we wanted to have our programming reflect that and we did it because there is a whole batch of advertisers who weren't talking to news networks that we wanted to reach.

Ad Age: What do you think will be the biggest challenge in 2017 for CNN?

Mr. Zucker: I think the biggest challenge is to make people understand 2017 is not going to be 2016. Managing expectations. We are very clear-eyed. We are being realistic and upfront that we don't have the debates and there aren't the conventions and there aren't the election nights, so the audiences are not going to be at the same levels, they're just not. Making sure you and others understand that is one of our biggest challenges. I'd love for you to look at 2017 versus 2015.

Ad Age: And you think we will see a meaningful improvement?

Mr. Zucker: If you look at 2017 versus 2014 or 2015 I think CNN will look very strong.

Ad Age: How important has it been to make sure CNN is covering all sides and viewpoints of the election?

Mr. Zucker: So look I think you have one news channel that skews very conservative, I think you have another news channel that skews very liberal and I think our goal has been to embrace both points of views.

Ad Age: But in previous years it wasn't as defined, or at least it wasn't as pronounced of a strategy.

Mr. Zucker: I have talked about this before, I think that's a fair criticism. I think it is clear both points of view are fully embraced on CNN and we've actually added a number of more conservative commentators and analysts than have existed here before. I think our coverage reflects that and I think our audience levels reflect that. That's one of the things, one of the reasons why we have gained such share in the cable news universe.

Ad Age: Both yourself and CNN have become part of the news around the election. How difficult is that to navigate?

Mr. Zucker: I don't think it's that difficult because I don't think we engage with it.

Ad Age: I see that tweet framed.

Mr. Zucker: But you can look at his tweet today.

Ad Age: I saw it and thought, "Jeff is going to be in a good mood this morning."

Mr. Zucker: But am I in a good mood?

Ad Age: You are in a great mood.

Mr. Zucker: Look, some days they love us, some days they don't. Then we must be doing something right, right? We don't engage in it. And that's fine.

Ad Age: All of this back and forth seems much more heightened than in previous elections. A lot of that is probably because of social media, but it just appears CNN has increasingly been part of the conversation.

Mr. Zucker: We are not going to engage in it. There have been times when the campaigns have praised us there have been times when the campaigns have tried to hurt us. All I ever say is just spell CNN right and we are fine.

Ad Age: What are one or two priorities for 2017?

Mr. Zucker: Our priorities are to maintain our dominance of the political story we had this year and to continue to expand and be as strong as we have been in the digital space.

Ad Age: What about HLN? We haven't heard too much about the network amid the election. What are the plans for that network after the election?

Mr. Zucker: The beauty of all of this attention on CNN and others has allowed HLN to begin to really reinvigorate itself under the radar and I think they have done that.

Ad Age: What is the positioning of the network?

Mr. Zucker: The positioning is it is CNN's cousin in presenting the news with a slightly more, a slightly less all-in approach and covering a wider variety of stories than CNN does.

Ad Age: Is it more lifestyle focused?

Mr. Zucker: I am reluctant to say lifestyle because that implies there isn't news. So that's why I don't use that word. It just has a wider variety. Certainly it covers breaking news but not in the same way CNN will, because why would they? Certainly it covers breaking news but it just covers a much wider array of stories.

Robin Meade is currently celebrating her 15th year in morning TV, we launched Michaela Pereira's show, we are about to launch Erica Hill's show, we are about to launch Ashleigh Banfield's show. We are trying to not throw the spotlight on it while they get up and running. And look the attention is going to be on the traditional networks. But there is a lot going on there. We have repositioned it so it is CNN's younger cousin, with an emphasis on younger and a network that is covering a broader and wider range of news story, which include news and lifestyle and pop culture and the sort. And by year's end we will all be up and running.

Ad Age: CNN's audience has gotten younger too. What is the plan to retain those younger viewers?

Mr. Zucker: The way you retain those is through our original series and films and documentaries. I gave you three reasons before about why we moved into that programming; a fourth reason would be because it also brings us a younger audience and it has helped us young down the average age of the audience.

Ad Age: How much do you think what's going on at Fox News will impact CNN?

Mr. Zucker: Whatever is happening at Fox is of no concern to us. We are playing our own game; we are doing what we think is right for us. What others do and what happens elsewhere we can't control so as a result it isn't a factor for us.

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