Jeff Zucker Looking Beyond Fox News, MSNBC to Revive CNN

'Our Competition Is Anyone Who Produces Nonfiction Programming'

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Jeff Zucker is looking beyond Fox News and MSNBC as he figures out how to revive CNN's slumping ratings .

Jeff Zucker
Jeff Zucker Credit: NATPE

"If we only look at the competition set as Fox News and MSNBC we are making a mistake," he said on a conference call Thursday, shortly after CNN named him its next president. "Our competition is anyone who produces nonfiction programming."

Asked whether that means CNN would even be going after networks like Discovery Channel, he said yes.

Mr. Zucker is replacing Jim Walton, who said in July that he would step down from the network at the end of the year to let the network bring in "new thinking."

While Mr. Zucker wouldn't elaborate on any specific on the new thinking necessary to fix ratings , specifically during CNN's prime time, he said the network needs to add some vibrancy and excitement into its programming.

While ratings are a priority, Mr. Zucker was hired to rebuild the network's fan base, said Phil Kent, CEO of Turner Broadcasting, the parent of CNN. "The most important thing is to be essential every day of the year to someone," he said during the call.

CNN has been trying to attract new types of personalities to the network, recently signing Anthony Bourdain, who will star in a food and lifestyle show that will air on the weekends next year. Mr. Zucker said this type of programming is the right direction for CNN.

"What I like is it begins to understand the definition of news is broader than what we traditionally think about," he said.

CNN has been adamant about sticking to its roots of nonpartisan reporting, a contrast to competitors that have thrived on a mix of news and opinion. And Mr. Zucker says he will continue to stay true to this mission.

"CNN stands for journalism, unlike almost anyone else," he said. "The challenge is how to make that exciting and relevant in that era."

"CNN's role in the world is more important than ever when partisan politics have been so loud," Mr. Zucker added. "We will remain true to the journalistic values that have always been a hallmark of CNN. Just because you're not partisan doesn't mean you can't be exciting."

Mr. Zucker's success at the "Today" show could also be tapped to revitalize CNN's morning programming.

Currently, CNN's sibling station, HLN, occasionally beats it in ratings in the mornings. "That's not a fact lost on us," Mr. Kent said. The network under Mr. Zucker will be asking itself what it should be doing differently than its cable and broadcast competitors in the mornings, Mr. Kent added.

"It's not the reason I wanted him, but it's a wonderful byproduct," Mr. Kent said.

Mr. Zucker has been known for taking risks. At NBC Universal, he came up with stunts like "supersizing" sitcoms like "Friends" and "Will and Grace" beyond the 30-minute slot to compete with CBS hits like "Survivor" and "CSI." At "Today," where he became executive producer at 26 years old, he is credited with creating the successful outdoor concert series.

Criticism of Mr. Zucker's mistakes atop NBC Universal didn't come into play for this position, Mr. Kent said. He was looking for a well-established leader of a news organization, he said,

"Whether he was the greatest head of NBC Entertainment was irrelevant," he said during the call. "He was a hands-on overseer of the NBC news brands on both cable and broadcast."

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