Zucker aims to make CNN ‘essential’

Disclosure: Rodney Ho is a board member of the Atlanta Press Club.

New CNN President Jeff Zucker said Monday the Atlanta-based network isn’t compelling enough, likening it to a “spare tire in the trunk.”

“You only take it out when you really need it,” Zucker told a packed Atlanta Press Club luncheon, in his first public comments since taking the job. “It’s not one of the four tires on the car all the time. The challenge for us is how to make CNN more essential, how to make it one of the four tires on the car.”

He said he doesn’t have a magic formula to solve this intractable problem for the TV network, which has suffered languid ratings during times when there is no breaking news.

“I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “I don’t even have half the answers.”

The first CNN president based in New York, not Atlanta, Zucker said he chose Atlanta for his first talk for symbolic reasons.

“I did not make my first luncheon with the press club in New York,” he said. “Atlanta will continue to be the home for CNN and continue to be the backbone of CNN.”

About half of CNN’s 4,000 employees are based in Atlanta.

Zucker repeated previous regime’s proclamations that CNN remain non-partisan, to be a place where viewers can “rely on the truth.” He said MSNBC and Fox News can stake the ends of the political spectrum: “There’s plenty of room in the middle. But it doesn’t give you the right to be boring. Too often, we haven’t been vibrant enough.”

A long-time network executive who built up “The Today Show” in the 1990s and most recently ran NBCUniversal, Zucker supports more targeted programming. Growing up in the 1980s watching CNN, he said, he enjoyed shows about sports and style, plus the political debate show “Crossfire,” which ended eight year ago. (He didn’t confirm it, but there are rumors that CNN may revive “Crossfire” later this year.)

Before Zucker arrived, predecessor Jim Walton last year began shopping for shows that might have otherwise landed on A&E or History. CNN’s first pick up, Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” debuted Sunday night, doubling the network’s regular audience size among 25 to 54 year olds.

“I completely embrace” this approach, Zucker said. “For too long, we believed our competitors were just the news networks.” In his mind, NatGeo and Discovery are rivals, too. He cited an Osama Bin Laden documentary on History and an Air Force One special on NatGeo as examples of programs that could have fit on CNN.

CNN has commissioned eight documentary films starting in 2014 on subjects such as education, Richard Nixon, a killer whale and nuclear energy.

Asked Monday about Piers Morgan, Zucker said his 9 p.m. host now emphasizes breaking news more than celebrity news because Zucker isn't sure an hour focused on big-name interviews, the way Morgan's predecessor Larry King structured his show, can draw audiences now at that hour.

He also dismissed barbs that CNN went over the top covering the Carnival cruise ship in February that suffered a fire and had to be towed to shore.

Zucker said it was mostly “jealous” competitors mocking CNN.

“Just because Jon Stewart makes fun of it doesn’t mean he’s right,” he said, referring to The Daily Show host who often skewers cable news. “It was a human drama.” He credited Terence Burke, vice president of newsgathering for domestic CNN, for gathering the resources “to cover it ahead of everybody else.”