Reading Jeff Zucker and Phil Kent’s Tea Leaves…
There’s a lot of tea leaves to look at from today’s teleconference with Jeff Zucker and Phil Kent so let’s get at it…
Zucker, who succeeds outgoing CNN chief Jim Walton starting in January, said while much about CNN needs to change, the network is already packed with talent and has already made promising moves – like tapping “Supersize Me” producer and star Morgan Spurlock and cranky globe-trotting TV chef Anthony Bourdain for new programming next year.
“News is not just about politics and war,” Zucker said. “The definition of news is broader than perhaps has been historically thought about here.”
Those out there, myself included, who were looking for a sign that CNN’s news brand will stay intact or at the very least as robust as it has been, are reading the above quote in abject horror. The inference here is that CNN wants to keep its news brand but move the goalposts regarding what constitutes news. This is a similar tactic to how MSNBC has “repositioned” itself under Zucker and Phil Griffin. In that network’s case, it translated into gutting news in favor of talking head political analysis. The MSNBC that everyone points to as a success story for Zucker ignores the reality that Jeff Zucker essentially killed MSNBC, as it existed, and created a new network bearing the same name with a different charter. I don’t think either Kent or Zucker want to take CNN in that direction to that degree but I do believe they want to alter the discussion about what constitutes news in order to give them more leeway in publicly justifying the programming that’s going to be airing on CNN with increasing frequency in the future.
This point was driven home by Tea Leaf #2…
“CNN has to find the right programming that exists in between the 25 nights a year when it is most relevant,” he said. “Beyond the fact that we are committed to news and journalism, everything else is open for discussion.”
And this here…
He also cited the “nonfiction programming” being produced on other cable networks, like Discovery, as part of the competitive landscape that CNN has to be a part of.
“When I say nonfiction programming, I’m not talking about reality shows,” Mr. Zucker said. “I’m not talking about ‘Honey Boo Boo.’ But there is plenty of nonfiction programming that could fit very well under the CNN brand.”
Translation: Expect more tape and less live news. But this shouldn’t be any surprise as Zucker was the champion of tape at MSNBC though that network’s foray into tape centered on reality TV. Don’t expect CNN under Zucker to follow the MSNBC crime tape blueprint, though Bourdain’s show definitely falls into the reality TV category. The result, however, will still be the same as MSNBC; less news and more tape. How much more tape is the $64,000 question and I don’t know the answer yet. But the more tape there is, the greater the opportunity for BBC World News or Al Jazeera US to increase their footprint in this country.
But Zucker did say he hopes CNN will, under his watch, become a place “where talent will have huge opportunities and will want to be.”
Zucker said he had ideas on how to tweak CNN’s programming, but offered up generalities such as thinking “bigger and broader,” “trying new things,” and “executing better.”
“It’s unfair to talk specifics about anybody or any show,” he said, citing his being at CNN “only an hour.”
That sound you hear is CNN staffers making sure their demo reels and resumes are up to date. Make no mistake, Jeff Zucker was hired as a change agent. Change is coming. Don’t expect massive immediate changes but gradual changes. Do expect a lot of the faces and shows you currently see on CNN to either not be there or be elsewhere on the channel in a few years time.
Related to that, there is a dead elephant in the room, and its name is NBCU 2.0. As head of NBC Universal Zucker took not one but several axes to the news division; moving MSNBC to 30 Rock and eliminating talent and redundancy while trying to preserve the news division’s ability to still cover the news that matters. Whether he achieved that latter goal is debatable depending on who you talk to.
But this is important because if there’s one thing CNN is guilty of it is flooding the zone on stories and events. The network considers it a bonus…even a source of pride…to be able to throw so much redundancy at a story. Others, particularly former CNNers now working at FNC, sometimes scoffed at the gratuitousness of the tactic. But that was the CNN pre Jeff Zucker.
I would not at all be surprised to see Zucker implement some version of NBCU 2.0 across CNN Worldwide. In Zucker’s mind NBCU 2.0 was a necessary step in NBC News’ evolution that just about every NBC News executive will publicly state was a success, albeit perhaps a trying success. And with CNN’s uber redundancy, with more bureaus and news staff than any other news network in the US by far, combined with the network’s years going push of all things digital, Zucker has to be extremely tempted to have at that very low hanging fruit begging to be picked. Streamlining and eliminating redundancy cuts costs and increases the bottom line. So long as its ability to deliver quality news is not damaged, increasing the bottom line makes for a nice bullet point in the face of a sluggish ratings trend.
Some have speculated that because Zucker will be based in New York and not Atlanta that this could be a sign that CNN might move to New York.
Those that have suggested this fail to grasp just how massive CNN Center in Atlanta is. It’s the home of CNN Domestic, HLN, CNN en Espanol, TruTV, and parts of CNN International and talent moves across those networks freely because they’re all together. The Time Warner Center in New York where CNN is located is nowhere near big enough to handle all those operations even if it could be moved. Which it can’t. The logistical and infrastructure changes required to move five networks over a thousand miles without disrupting their ability to broadcast programming is impossible to undertake.
“What should CNN be doing in the morning, that’s where I think Jeff will start,” Kent said. “That’s a thought exercise we never really did any of.”
And with that CNN has its first PR headache of the Zucker era for Phil Kent just trashed Mark Whitaker, whether he realizes it or not. Starting Point was Whitaker’s baby as the network publicly noted in its press release. Now here’s the Chairman of Turner Broadcasting all but throwing Whitaker under the bus by implying Whitaker’s efforts in getting Starting Point off the ground lacked thoughtful planning. Oops.