Jeff Zucker's experimental CNN revival project has chugged along at a steady pace over the last few months, generating intrigue without exactly accelerating ratings or advertising dollars — and not exactly filling the anchor seat with bigger names than Anthony Bourdain or Jake Tapper. But now that the morning show guru turned network executive has CNN's fresh-faced morning show ready for launch, Zucker can turn his attention to reviving his primetime lineup. The big question for the months ahead: Will he take CNN in reverse to pass ahead?
In its company announcement, CNN doesn't offer any mission statement for New Day, in keeping with Zucker's media silence on the news rebranding of the year. But he's lined up some people you might like, and his own morning-show credentials suggest there will be plenty of "poop cruise" and Amanda Knox to go along with the harder news of Soledad O'Brien past. Zucker guided NBC's Today show through most of what's come to be known as "The Streak" — the 16-year period when Today dominated the rankings, a period that is very much no longer. Zucker has also surrounded his new hosts with two executive producers who have serious chops in the news and morning TV business: Jim Murphy, who built up ABC's Good Morning America but left before it finally beat Today's streak to serve a brief stint on Anderson Cooper's daytime talk show, will serve as senior executive producer; and Matt Frucci, who joined CNN in October after spending 12 years working for ABC News, will be New Day's executive producer.
Mornings are what Zucker does best, but as explained in Paul Farhi's recent profile in the Washington Post, CNN is getting beat throughout the day by Fox News and MSNBC and their brands of partisan news coverage. And Zucker, no primetime fixer-upper in his post-Today days as an NBC exec, knows he has a whole lot more refurbishing ahead. "Just because you're in the middle, does not give you the right to be boring," he told the Atlanta Press Club at a recent luncheon, his only real public remarks since being tapped as CNN's new president late last year. "Too often, we haven't been vibrant enough." Is it working? Maybe not. The ratings haven't budged very much. All that "poop cruise" coverage did well, and even if the soft-news-as-hard-news approach turned CNN into a punch line, the dayside slog of "story torture" is off and running, including Tapper taking over an hour of the Wolf-Blitzer-a-thon in the late afternoons — and perhaps, eventually, under the help of take-the-story-and-run expert Steve Capus, a former NBC News pal.
So everything is in gear for Zucker's next destination: primetime. Piers Morgan's ratings are going down and (Get to) The Point was cancelled so quickly some questioned whether or not it ever really existed. Anderson Cooper's ratings are down too, but Farhi reported his place in the CNN hierarchy is secure. CNN needs serious help during those precious 7-11 p.m. hours that advertisers crave — and that the Bill O'Reillys of the world continue to dominate.
CNN's primetime schedule is currently full(ish) with Burnett, Cooper, Morgan, Cooper again, and then Burnett — in that order. And while expensive hires in the 10 and 11 o'clock spots wouldn't be unheard of — a late-primetime capper featuring, say, Ann Curry, certainly wouldn't be bad counter-programming to the frequently severe Lawrence O'Donnell and Greta Van Susteren. But as Farhi put it, the "most vulnerable host these days may be... Piers Morgan," in the 9 p.m. hour. Either Morgan or Cooper could be bumped out of primetime, or move on to other things. As secure as Cooper's job is, his contract with the network is up this fall.
You know you're going to watch Newt on Crossfire. Just don't admit it while anyone's listening.
Until then, Zucker has to weather the storm of criticism the network faced in the wake of their breaking news coverage of the Boston bombings. While he thought the network did "exceptional work," the media critics disagreed: The New York Times' David Carr was especially unimpressed with CNN's coverage, comparing CNN to the "poop cruise" it loved so much. NBC's Pete Williams was heralded as a hero by many for his work, but Zucker hasn't been one for talking heads and correspondents so much as stars in the making and shows that stand out. That's the pattern of Jeff Zucker's CNN remake so far: two steps forward, one step back, always settling somewhere in the middle.