The stars of CNN were fired up at the Jan. 10 party that followed the news channel's Television Critics Association press tour session. Their boss, Jeff Zucker, had come out swinging at Fox News chairman Roger Ailes for his recent remark that CNN "is out of the news business" — a swipe at the channel's stated intention to look for programming outside of traditional news shows. Zucker, citing a new book about Ailes, countered that his top-rated competitor is an arm of the Republican Party "masquerading as a news channel."
A Fox News spokesperson says Zucker was looking to deflect attention from CNN's ratings issues. Even if that was the case, CNN's on-air talent and producers welcomed Zucker's combativeness. Nearly all of those who attended the party thanked him for standing up for them.
While Zucker's style is energizing CNN's staff, the network still faces the challenge of growing its primetime audience. Zucker's strategy of broadening the channel's offerings to include documentaries and series (once staples of CNN's line-up in previous decades when the network was considered more serious) has delivered a few ratings wins. But it continues to be a tricky balancing act as viewers still expect the network to be the go-to destination for breaking news. On Jan. 9, CNN's latest film offering, Sole Survivor (which told the stories of people who've lived through plane crashes), finished behind Fox News Channel's and MSNBC's coverage of Gov. Chris Christie's troubles over the George Washington Bridge lane closings. The Biz followed up with Zucker after his TCA session.
TV Guide Magazine: You listed breaking news and films as your priorities, but are those always compatible? When you aired March of the Penguins, you had a major weather event going on in most of the country. And you aired a movie when the other networks were covering the breaking news on Gov. Christie.
Jeff Zucker: We covered Christie for 12 straight hours, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. We had a movie scheduled the night Nelson Mandela died and we took it off. Everything will be on a case-by-case decision. We felt we had to go heavy on Mandela and even though we heavily promoted the movie, I moved it to Sunday night.
TV Guide Magazine: But March of the Penguins — a 2005 movie instead of covering the extreme weather?
Jeff Zucker: We kind of thought it was the perfect movie for everyone at home in the cold weather. There is only so much you can do. I understand your point. It will always be news first, but every one of those is an individual judgment.
TV Guide Magazine: Blackfish is a documentary, but it really feels like the kind of investigation that network newsmagazines used to do.
Zucker: Yeah. I actually hate the word documentary. It sounds boring.
TV Guide Magazine: Are there enough of those type of movies out there that can work on CNN?
Zucker: There are a lot of networks that were in the market for non-fiction films that have moved away from it for scripted reality shows and competition shows, and I think that's given us an opening. I think there is an underserved marketplace for them. We're a perfect home for that.
TV Guide Magazine: Overall, has it been tougher to turn around the channel's ratings than you anticipated?
Zucker: The turnaround will take years. But we just went from third place to second place ahead of MSNBC. [In 2013, CNN topped MSNBC in total viewers for the first time in two years while finishing third in primetime].
TV Guide Magazine: MSNBC's hosts have been getting into hot water with controversial comments they had to apologize for. Do you think it's hurt them and helped you?
Zucker: I think all of those things combined affect the brand over time and the cumulative effect takes its toll.
TV Guide Magazine: How soon do you have to make changes to your primetime line-up?
Zucker: We don't have to do anything. When we find good and smart on-brand programming that's ready to go we'll look for a place for it. We're not under any pressure.