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…

Teal Leaf #1:

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.

Tea Leaf #3:

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.”

And this

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.

No chance.

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.

Teal Leaf #4:

“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.

32 Responses to “Reading Jeff Zucker and Phil Kent’s Tea Leaves…”

  1. I think we might boil this all down to my expected premiere of the first Zucker-CNN-era show…. drum roll…ICE-ROAD-BLITZER!

  2. It will be interesting to see what changes are made and what anchors end up being let go. I have a feeling Anderson may be one of the ones let go.

  3. ^ AC and Erin are the best things going there right now. Speaking of, when did OutFront go from annoying to a damn good show?

  4. I still find it too annoying…

  5. It was about time CNN Domestic went down the same road as CNN International and CNN Espanol. This is just expanding the philosophy that has taken over those other two networks: that news are only relevant if it’s televised breaking news, and if not, tape or lifestyle are enough to keep the engine running. Look for the schedules of those troubled networks as a model for the future CNN Domestic. CNNi started this trend by gradually changing its programming in 2009, and CNNe did it dramatically a year after. You could argue it all started with CNN Headline News in 2005 and we know it led to that network adopting a different brand to avoid tarnishing CNN Domestic, but since CNNi and CNNe have been like this for years now and there’s been next to zero complaints and therefore no hope they will revert to their former ways, I think Domestic is cursed to go through the same situation. And I think it’s was bound to happen with or without Zucker.

  6. Interesting analysis Spud. Here are a few random thoughts I have. As i see it there are a number of directions Zucker can take CNN in the next few years.

    1) It can stay the course with the network format, but change some hosts and/or shows. I seriously doubt Zucker will take this minimalist approach.

    2) It can try and be a better MSNBC. I don’t think there is room for another left leaning network and even if there were it would take years to accomplish.

    3) It can try and be a second FNC. Even less likely for the same reasons as #2.

    4) It can try and look more like HLN Primetime. Lots of crime and entertainment news mixed with trial coverage, breaking news and reality shows. Can’t see this one either as it isn’t working for HLN now.

    5) Get out of news altogether. Taped programing, reality shows, talk shows, movies, docs etc. Move news to HLN. Possible but unlikely.

    There may be other options or he may go with a mix of the options I stated.

    More later

  7. Analysis of the Fritz analysis: a worthless piece of ****.

    Our porno-cat fan puts our five “directions” NONE of which he says is likely. Pity the poor motorist who stops to ask Fritz for directions.

  8. More random thoughts.

    Atlanta: I agree we are unlikely to see a move of all operations out of Atlanta but CNN head office may move to NY. It’s not like they are talking about moving to LA. Atlanta and NY are only a couple of hours apart and in the same time zone.

    CNN management: I can’t see Jautz, Whitaker, Maddox and all being very happy about Zucker now making all the upcoming programing and talent decisions; so they may depart. After all if they wanted to change CNN in ways Zucker may be planning they would have done it already.

    Time frame: How long will TW give Zucker to right the CNN ship and how far will they allow him to take the news network from a cable news net. It will take at least two years to see if Zucker can make CNN viable again. I think he has that long. I don’t know how far they will allow him to take the news net from it’s original mandate. My guess – pretty far.

    I’ll be interested in seeing what Ted Turner has to say about this hire. Although he’s now mostly forgotten at CNN he still is has a valued opinion and I’d like to hear it.

    Lastly will Zucker push the network to closer ties to CBS which have been hinted at for years, but never really acted on. That may be one of the outcomes of the Zucker hiring.

  9. Great article Spud. I totally agree with you on OutFront, it is still way too annoying (sorry, joeremi). I watched it a couple months ago – its improved but still, she’s has a year and this?? It seems the consensus is that putting her behind a teleprompter was a bad idea – obviously true. However, you take away the script and she often says stuff that really gets her in hot water (she can say some monumentally stupid and insulting things that randomly pop in her head). Nobody cared at CNBC, but people actually pay attention to CNN.

    Anderson is still the star but that daytime adventure was a bad idea and his show has declined as a result. Thankfully, that is over soon. Get him out in the field a lot more and people will tune in again.

    Starting Point has many problems but Soledad has proven to be a really tough, compelling interviewer. I don’t know how to fix the morning tv show but I know CNN shouldn’t lose what Soledad has going – regardless of where they put her. Morning Joe is falling apart since Chris Licht left – CNN has a real opening to make ratings traction.

    As for Jauntz and Whittaker – my bet is they are both gone before the end of 2013.

    Fritz – the remark you made about CBS would be interesting. Maybe Zucker could make that union between CNN and CBS happen.

    Of course, all this chat about CNN domestic but I am really curious to see what he does with CNNI. Will he make CNNI available to more households in the US? If CNN descends into more “tape” as Spud put it, will people watch CNNI as an alternative if they had the chance?

  10. Will he make CNNI available to more households in the US? If CNN descends into more “tape” as Spud put it, will people watch CNNI as an alternative if they had the chance?

    ^^ I doubt Zucker will make any changes to CNNI until CNN is fixed – if thats possible. As for increasing CNNI viewership in the US; I don’t see that happening, anytime soon, either. Most CNNI viewership increases in the US would come at the expense of CNN so that would seem to be a none starter.

  11. But Elle, CNN International would offer nothing but an alternative schedule, as CNNi is already the news and factual entertainment channel that Zucker wants Domestic to be. Not to mention that 1/4 of CNNi programming is simulcasts and replays of CNN Domestic shows, and there’s more to come, like Parts Unknown. And I think that CNNi will carry some of Domestic’s (insert broader definition of news) shows, too.

  12. So, he’s going to ruin CNNI along with CNN. Great. 😉

  13. ctrlway, I see your point but right now, I would take that alternative schedule versus watching CNN domestic. Amanpour over Piers? Uh, yeah. Hala Gorani is better than CNN dayside people. Just sayin’.

  14. Oh, and I like the blond-haired australian guy that is sometimes on newsroom international. I’d take him too.

  15. Fritz, Time Warner doesn’t want CNNI to air more in this country. It could have forced the issue after the demise of CNNfn and didn’t. They don’t want it canabalizing domestic’s viewership.

    Ctrlway, makes some very good points, ones I could have made had I seen CNN’s international channels more than a handful of times since 2009 and not at all in 23 months. I was unaware of how much thing have changed.

  16. Fritz, Time Warner doesn’t want CNNI to air more in this country. It could have forced the issue after the demise of CNNfn and didn’t. They don’t want it canabalizing domestic’s viewership.”

    ^^That’s what i said Spud; at least I thought I did.

    It was Elle who said they should do more CNNI in the US. i forgot to put quotes on her comment when I replied. Sorry.

  17. Yep, it was me. Actually, it was more like wishful thinking on my part rather than a prediction of what will come.

    I read something Kent said I thought was smart – CNN needs a hard core fan base. That used to include me but I have drifted from it in the last couple years in particular. There are good moments but too many times it is unwatchable. It is inconsistent and uneven. The good times are not worth suffering through the bad. CNN (don’t get me started on the junk that is HLN) has really alienated their fan base and they are gonna have to work hard to bring it back. Its too easy to find other great sources of news, information, and talk.

  18. I’ve mentioned this before, and I doubt anyone takes it seriously, but the look of a network matters. CNN is too “cold” in comparison to FNC and MSNBC. They use way too many black backgrounds, reminiscent of the Charlie Rose set on PBS. It may be intended to send a “we’re doing serious news here” message, but it’s quite off-putting, and HD makes it worse. Amusingly, Fox uses a lot of reds, and MSNBC blue. CNN needs to find a warmer “neutral” color.

  19. I hear Keith Olbermann isn’t doing much these days. They could bring him on board as lighting consultant.

  20. “Speaking of, when did OutFront go from annoying to a damn good show?”

    Well having tried many times to watch it…. I would guess somewhere around the 10th drink. LOL!

  21. Elle: Yeah, there are some great people at CNNi like Hala Gorani, Michael Holmes, Jim Clancy, Christiane Amanpour and Kristie Lu Stout. And I am all for extending CNNi’s reach in the States, just don’t put CNN International on a pedestal because unless there’s a major and needed change, you will sadly be disappointed. 😦
    It is funny that you mention Piers and dayside because not only does CNNi simulcast PMT at 9:00 pm, it replays it twice the following day, during the American morning (Asian primetime) and afternoon (European late night). There have been many moments the network chose to remain with PMT replays over covering breaking international news. Ironically enough, the Piers replays in dayside usually have that yellow “Breaking News” banner from the previous night.

  22. Erin Burnett’s hyperactive style irritated me at first, but either I got used to it, or she calmed down. I like the “general news” style of the show. I realize CNN does this most of the day, but I don’t see much of it. I know if I tune in OutFront (the 8pst re-air, after I’ve watched MSNBC Primetime) that I will get a good representation of the day’s national and international news; and Erin will conduct good, knowledgable interviews. I also know that if she talks about Benghazi it will be because of actual news on the subject, not a frenzied partisan push against the president (FNC), or a frenzied pushback against FNC (MSNBC).

  23. Yeah, there are some great people at CNNi like Hala Gorani, Michael Holmes, Jim Clancy, Christiane Amanpour and Kristie Lu Stout

    I will agree with you on four of the five people you cited. But the other one I will argue to my dying breath that they and their robotic delivery make for extremely painful TV.

  24. I don’t think you are talking about Hala. I can make a case for each of the others being robotic at some point of their careers, most notably Kristie and Michael, though Christiane did herself in during her time on This Week. (ALSO: Isn’t it time for ABC News to name a new host? Or is George staying per secula seculorum?) So, who is it? Spill the beans.

  25. (ALSO: Isn’t it time for ABC News to name a new host? Or is George staying per secula seculorum?)

    Tapper must have somebody up the chain that just isn’t willing to turn the show over to someone who might be willing to stray off the reservation and say the chief has no clothes..

  26. I agree ctrlway – Spud, ya can’t leave us hanging like that! Who is it? My guess, its Amanpour or Kristie.

    As for ABC – yes they need a new host. Really, is ABC going to be he George show. Tapper would be the best but the powers that be for some reason have decided not to give it to him. Pity really. Here’s hoping he shows up on CNN.

  27. Oh Joe, say it ain’t so?!?! LOL!!! I would not have pegged you as a defender of Erin Burnett. Since you are an experienced connoisseur of cable news (and we have similar tastes in news shows) I will give the show another honest try and I will keep an open mind. Good and knowledgeable interviewer? Hmmm, that may be a bit of a stretch but given CNN’s primetime standards, she may be good enough. I always felt like she came to an interview with her preplanned questions as a crutch. She has an agenda what she wants to say and is easily thrown off her game. She doesn’t listen and go with the flow as some of the better known anchors. Maybe with more experience in general news, that will change. The hyperactivity thing is hard to get over – it comes off as immature to me. Perhaps it is because I lack the necessary attribute to fully appreciate what Princess Erin has to offer. I lack a Y-chromosome. 😉

    Oh, and numbering the stories is dumb. Really, do I need them counted out for me? Its patronizing – like I need them spoon fed to me one at a time. Here we go kids, we are on story number 3, stay with us… Seriously? That’s more of a CNN production problem than it is Burnett’s. Although, I get the feeling the five story shtick was really a way to keep the bouncing Burnett between the rails. Some producer must have sat her down and said, “Look, you get 5 topics so engage your brain and focus for longer than 2 seconds cuz you just delivered the news like you are on crystal meth and we can’t keep having you do that.” Erin, 5 , count ’em. So she did, literally.

    You make a great point about the Benghazi story. Overall, I think CNN’s handling of the issue has been spot on. It is an important story and everyone at CNN has been tough and fair. Fox is turning it into a political frenzy and MSNBC is disgracefully ignoring it. After a few hours of MSNBC, I can see where an hour of real news is appealing (although, my preference at that hour is to watch The Daily Show – ya know, the only true objective news source).

  28. harry1420 Says:

    maybe cnn should report news..there’s a novel concept. Be different! CNN isn’t going to get the fox noise viewers. Have actual newscasts on the air all day long 24/7 and leave all 24/7 political whining to the others.

  29. Sorry…but I’m not telling…

  30. […] Weprin scoops that Mark Whitaker is leaving CNN.This is not completely a surprise after Phil Kent threw him under the bus and the all but certain death of Soledad O’Brien’s Starting Point after Chris Cuomo got […]

  31. […] wrote this the day Zucker was hired as President of CNN […]

  32. […] months ago I said it could […]

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