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CNN and Jeff Zucker are close to an agreement that would place the former NBCUniversal chief executive in charge of the news channel, Brian Stelter reports. Time Warner CEO Jeffrey L. Bewkes and Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent “want someone who has programming and management and cable expertise; someone who can be credible to the staff and to the business community,” one source told Stelter.
Mr. Zucker could check off all those boxes. As a young NBC News producer, he helped start what became a 16-year winning streak for the “Today” show. He had mixed results as he moved up the rungs of NBC, but he can point to cable programming successes even as the NBC broadcast network struggled. He did not respond to requests for comment, and people with knowledge of the search insisted on anonymity to preserve friendships and business relationships.
Jim Walton announced his resignation as the head of CNN Worldwide in July, telling staff “CNN needs new thinking.”
Joe Flint writes in the Los Angeles Times that Zucker “has been the candidate most often mentioned for the position practically since the day Walton announced his plans to leave CNN.”
However, Zucker has been away from the news business for more than a decade. He left “Today” to become head of NBC’s prime-time lineup in 2000 and though he did not have nearly the same success programming the evenings as he did the mornings, he still rose to the top of NBCUniversal. He left after Comcast Corp. acquired a majority stake in NBCUniversal. Zucker is currently producing former “Today” anchor Katie Couric’s daytime talk show.
Zucker “might better be remembered as the guy who plucked the peacock,” Meg James and Matea Gold wrote in the L.A. Times in 2010, cataloging three major mistakes he made while running that network: He made Conan O’Brien host of “The Tonight Show,” hired Ben Silverman to run NBC and oversaw the entire Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien debacle. “How does Jeff Zucker keep rising and rising while the fortunes of NBC keep falling and falling?” Maureen Dowd wrote in 2010.
But Zucker — invariably described as the kind of guy who “swings for the fences” — may be exactly what CNN needs, Andrew Wallenstein writes in Variety.
CNN is at a crossroads similar to the one NBC faced not too long ago. Fixing its primetime sked is going to take some bold moves — perhaps the kind that will have traditionalists in the news business carping and cawing. Many of them no doubt reside in Atlanta.
In October, Flint wrote that Zucker would likely not move to Atlanta, where CNN is headquartered, and might “spend half his time on a corporate jet instead of being in the trenches with the team that so desperately needs a leader.”
CNN’s primetime ratings have been dreadful, though Walton told The Wall Street Journal’s Keach Hagey that primetime revenues accounted for only 10 percent of CNN’s bottom line. Former CNN anchor Aaron Brown told Stelter: “In the end, maybe they really should be content with an ace brand, awards and big profits, and leave the ratings to others.”
Zucker, Wallenstein writes, will “be knocking on the doors of the same talent agencies he alienated in the past in search of other talent to reignite CNN.”
But that won’t be a problem. He may make a lot of people in this town see red, but his money is still green.