Variety’s Ramin Setoodeh has a long interview with Jeff Zucker.
It’s a fairly tame interview. The hardest shot Setoodeh takes is here…
In June, CNN raised eyebrows when it added Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to its payroll as a commentator. “The reason we hired Corey is that now that we are in the general election, I think it’s really important to have voices on CNN who are supportive of the Republican nominee,” says Zucker. “It’s hard to find a lot of those. Our competitors tried to hire him too.” Zucker doesn’t agree with criticism that Lewandowski is offering talking points instead of analysis. “I actually think he’s done a really nice job,” Zucker says. “He’s come under a much greater spotlight because of who he is, and the relationship he’s had with the media. As a result, people are going to be more critical.”
Even as shots go this one is pretty tame because it totally ignores the story that Lewandowski is still on Trump’s payroll with his severance package that he has a vested interest in not seeing diminish should he say something the notoriously vindictive Trump doesn’t like. Ripping Manafort on air doesn’t qualify.
Then there’s this…
Some of CNN’s naysayers complain that the network leans too heavily on stories that grab eyeballs. But Zucker argues that he doesn’t need to choose between ratings and less-splashy journalism. “There’s a misconception we’re doing this all for ratings,” he says. “We’re covering all of the news. It’s just not necessarily on television anymore.” He points to online stories of world events that may not make the daily broadcast for CNN’s U.S. airwaves, and CNN International employs a robust team of reporters all over the world. “We run a very profitable international business and are pleased about that,” says Tony Maddox, the managing director of CNN International.
This is why I take exception to the title of this article. How Jeff Zucker made CNN great again? That’s arguable, depending on your definition of “great”. If by “great” you mean more successful, profitable, higher rated…then yeah CNN is great again.
But at what cost?
What about CNN TV covering all of the major world stories? You know that thing CNN used to do but doesn’t do anymore.
Morale may be up but why is that? Is it because staff bought in to the above definition of “great”?
CNN TV used to stand apart from its cable news brethren because it covered more of the world more of the time. Now it has fallen in line with its competitors and does less with more.
That’s a pretty steep price to be “great” again. You sacrifice long term viability and relevance to achieve short term gain.
I keep circling back to one factoid in Zucker’s re-invention of the network…that its TV wing isn’t covering the news like it used to. It’s not just about going deep on a few stories…it’s the wholesale ignoring of major world events because, while newsworthy, they just won’t give the eyeballs that covering Trump ad nauseum will…that going berserk over MH370 did.
This is why I choke on Zucker’s suggestion that it’s not about ratings. OF COURSE IT IS ABOUT RATINGS. The stories that rate well get covered hard and long. The ones that don’t rate as well get shoved to online. Stories are hyped days in advance thanks to CNN’s countdown clock abuse. I just saw one today counting down the days until the election. This isn’t about some great public service CNN is performing for its viewers. No, the reasons for cluttering up dayside with countdown clocks is far more cynical. It’s to hype the story…to bait viewers…to drive ratings.
The idea that online is an acceptable substitute for major world stories should be anathema to a TV news network. Zucker can talk about digital until he’s blue in the face but the bottom line is CNN TV is still the golden goose. If Time Warner suddenly decided to fold up CNN TV tomorrow, CNN Digital will start dying a slow death. Nobody outside of maybe CNN thinks CNN Digital can stand on its own. Online news is still dominated by traditional journalism based entities like The Times, like The Post, like The Guardian, like The Financial Times, like The Wall Street journal. Even MSNBC.com in its portal dominanting heyday was dominant not because it could stand on its own but because it had then powerhouse Microsoft to drive traffic.
A quick show of hands. When searching for news of the day, how many people first head to CNN.com?
I rest my case.
This from Zucker is noteworthy…
“I don’t think Vice and BuzzFeed are legitimate news organizations,” he says. What would he call them? “They are,” he says with a mischievous grin, “native advertising shops. We crush both of them. They are not even in our same class.”
But they are most definitely also a huge potential threat to CNN Digital especially where Millenials are concerned. Like it or not CNN Digital is probably more viewed as “old media” by Millenials even though it really isn’t, whereas Vice and Buzzfeed are considered “new media” and probably hipper. Zucker has to squash that notion, thus the over the top acerbic put down.
And don’t think Zucker doesn’t know this. How else can you explain this?
CNN has started its own digital company targeted to millennials. It’s called “Great Big Story,” the only product the network has ever launched without its trademark letters. GBS has its own logo — a red rocket ship.
CNN is supposed to be THE brand. The one that drives the traffic to digital. And yet, when launching a new media venture to counter Buzzfeed and Vice, CNN opted to leave its strongest asset, its brand, on the bench? What’s that tell you?