Jeff Zucker, the former head of NBC Universal, has been tapped to lead CNN, the middle-of-the-road network that has fallen far behind its more partisan rivals, MSNBC and Fox News, in primetime ratings. Zucker has long been one of the favorites to succeed Jim Walton, but his tenure at NBC had its ups and downs. He made Today the most profitable show on television as its executive producer, but was also responsible for a highly publicized spat between Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien that may have permanently scarred O'Brien's soul. NBC began to trail all three of its broadcast competitors under his watch, while MSNBC flourished.
Zucker's challenge will be to give viewers a reason to tune into CNN, which remains a go-to channel during breaking-news events, but lacks the kind of colorful personalities that can get ratings even on slow news days. Zucker, who was behind Donald Trump's Apprentice franchise, may be the right man for the job, says Juli Weiner at Vanity Fair:
An ability to handpick, out of all the vile, morally flexible opportunists, the one that would turn out to also be kind of a racist in a very sound-bite-friendly way, is the stuff of a truly visionary cable-news executive. If Zucker was able to bring talent worthy of Fox News, longtime number-one cable-news network, to NBC primetime, he's surely capable of making CNN more Fox-like (re: successful, watched, lucrative), too.
However, others argue that it would be a mistake to turn CNN into another infotainment channel. CNN remains a highly profitable company, thanks to international operations that remain committed to an old-fashioned, BBC-like delivery of the news. Damaging that brand could hurt the company's bottom line more severely than failing to secure a host who can grab attention as effortlessly as Bill O'Reilly, says David Zurawik at The Baltimore Sun:
That's the last thing CNN needs — somebody who is going to come in and shake things up just to shake things up. In fact, one of Zucker's biggest failures, the move of Jay Leno to prime time when he was running NBC, has probably taught him the wisdom of respecting viewer expectations even as he tries to reshape the medium for today's landscape.
Most agree, though, that Zucker must "hammer out a stronger identity for CNN," says Jeanine Poggi at AdAge. Otherwise it may continue to flounder in a gray space between Fox on the right and MSNBC on the left.