What Will Jeff Zucker Do With CNN?

Expect him to devise an around-the-clock equivalent of the Today show, with substantial segments of soft "news you can use" and entertainment blended with the news of the day

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Reuters

The naming of Jeff Zucker as president of CNN Worldwide last month placed a bona fide television polymath at the helm of this iconic American cable news enterprise. Zucker, who is 47, had successes in news at NBC (Today and the NBC Nightly News) and subsequent setbacks in entertainment, as the NBC network dropped to fourth place in prime-time.

Now, he will lead a sprawling array of "23 branded news and information businesses that includes CNN/U.S., CNN International, CNN.Com and HLN that reaches more than two billion people in some 200 countries," according to the official announcement.

With so much all-day programming to provide for so many constituencies, it's a massive challenge to say what CNN is truly meant to be. The conundrum for the flagship CNN/U.S. is whether to move decisively in the direction of the BBC's world-wide news channel, with an emphasis on authoritative (as opposed to opinionated) news and upmarket features. Or is it better to go with newsbreaks in a cluster of infotainment shows, such as the already planned programs with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock, who made the movie Supersize Me about eating at McDonald's?

When I watched CNN abroad recently, the news coverage was impressive, with Christiane Amanpour, Anderson Cooper, and others on the Israeli/Gaza conflagration, and quality commentary from Fareed Zakaria. CNN International deserves the respect it has achieved over the decades. But on the home front, the highly visible evening line-up, which has been subject to constant tinkering, has limited impact, except when there is very big news that takes advantage of CNN's on-the-ground expertise. For example, my friend, Ben W. Heineman Jr., was right when he wrote in praise of CNN's fact-filled election night coverage.

What was striking about the hoopla around the Zucker appointment was the paradox in CNN's current circumstances. Headlines and stories said CNN is "struggling" and in a "ratings tailspin." But it was also reported that CNN Worldwide is on its way to its most profitable year ever, with over $600 million in profits from revenue streams in advertising and subscription fees from cable systems and affiliated stations. Can this complex of disparate but inter-related companies with the CNN name, vying with so many other outlets and still making huge profits, really be in such trouble?

The answer appears to be that the management of Time-Warner, CNN's parent, led by CEO Jeffrey L. Bewkes, believes, as he put it bluntly, that CNN "can do a better job of attracting and retaining viewers." For all its rising revenues, CNN in the United States has about one third of the average 1.2 million viewers of Fox News, which also has soaring profits -- over $860 million in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center. It is one of News Corp.'s gems, and its head, Roger Ailes, is nonpareil as a producer of right-wing television. On the left, MSNBC also has a bigger average audience (about 500,000) than CNN/U.S., while its revenues benefit from its place at the NBC/Universal conglomerate alongside CNBC and NBC News (where the wildly lucrative Today show has lately fallen behind ABC's Good Morning America in head-to-head ratings).

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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