CNN names former NBC exec president

Jeff Zucker will be first president not to live in Atlanta

For the first time in its 32-year history, CNN will not have a president based in Atlanta.

On Thursday, the cable news network named Jeff Zucker, who turned NBC’s “Today Show” into a powerhouse in the 1990s, as the new president of the Atlanta-based company, beginning in January. Zucker, 47, will report to Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent in Atlanta, but remain in New York, where he lives now.

The fact that Zucker will stay in New York “further minimizes the Atlanta operation as kind of the farm team where they send people to train before they get to the big show,” said Bill Crane, a communications strategist who worked with Zucker during the 1996 Olympics as part of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

Founded by Ted Turner in 1980, CNN employs 4,000 people worldwide, half of whom are based in Atlanta. The morning and primetime programs are based in New York, but daily news programming is mostly in Atlanta.

CNN remains an enormously profitable media company, but ratings declines have put pressure on advertising revenues.

Kent praised Zucker’s track record of running a large and complicated news operation at NBC, and minimized the significance of Zucker’s decision to lead the company from New York.

“We are a virtual global company,” Kent said. “And Jeff living in New York is absolutely fine with me.”

Most of CNN’s big-name personalities — Soledad O’Brien, Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Piers Morgan, Erin Burnett — are based in New York or Washington, D.C.

Chuck Roberts, a CNN Headline News anchor from 1982 to 2010, said having Zucker based in New York will enable him to work more closely with the troubled morning and prime-time lineups operating there. “I think show production will improve,” he said.

Pamela Sellers, a senior producer who left CNN in August after 15 years, said the “media machine” is based out of New York and that won’t change, since O’Brien, Morgan and Cooper need easy access to celebrities. But she doesn’t believe Zucker’s hire will cause CNN to gut Atlanta because it’s so much more economical to keep most of its operations here. “It is fair to assume that the bulk of money is spent in New York,” she said, “but the bulk of the work is done in Atlanta.”

Zucker made a name for himself at the helm of “Today,” which became the dominant force in morning TV under his watch with Katie Couric as co-host. He became president of NBC Entertainment in 2000, then moved up the ranks, taking over NBCUniversal in 2007.

Although the basic cable networks owned by NBCUniversal such as Bravo, Syfy and USA thrived under Zucker’s watch, the broadcast network suffered an ignominious fall in prime-time ratings. Jay Leno’s brief, ill-fated move to prime time in 2009 sealed his fate and he left NBC soon after. More recently, he has produced Couric’s new talk show, which debuted this fall.

“There’s no doubt I made mistakes in the entertainment world,” Zucker said. “I own those. I feel real excited to return to daily news both on television and in digital.”

Zucker will be taking over a CNN in flux. Outgoing president Jim Walton, who officially steps down at the end of the year, helped make CNN a healthy, profitable division of Time Warner, with its digital and international operations growing rapidly. But the TV network has struggled in the ratings this year as consumers of straightforward hard news have moved elsewhere. Ratings in the spring dropped to their lowest point in two decades and the station frequently falls far behind more partisan cable news networks MSNBC and leader Fox News.

“Just because you aren’t partisan doesn’t mean you can’t be exciting,” Zucker said during a press conference Thursday after the official announcement of his hiring. “We need more passion and fans. That shouldn’t be mistaken for partisanship.”

“CNN does not have an identity problem,” Kent added. “We’ve had execution problems.”

Zucker wasn’t ready to offer specific critiques of current CNN talent. “That would be unfair,” he said, noting he just joined the company.

Bill Carroll, a TV analyst for Katz Media Group, which provides services to TV and radio stations, said CNN needs a leader who has both news and entertainment experience. Zucker fits that bill.

But he said Zucker has his work cut out for him with CNN: “It’s hard to turn a cruise ship in the middle of a river.”

Rich Hanley, journalism professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., said Zucker will have to make bold moves quickly to gain confidence above and below him.

“Zucker has to deliver the goods,” Hanley said. “He’s going to be under a lot of pressure to improve the ratings and transform CNN from a place where you go only for breaking news to a place where you go every day.”

Over the years, past CNN executives have tried and failed to do just that.

Recently, CNN hired travel and food expert Anthony Bourdain and documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock to create weekend programming starting next year, using outside production companies. As it starts to outsource long-form news production, CNN has scaled back its own documentary division.

Zucker said CNN’s competition isn’t just MSNBC and Fox News, but other basic cable networks that cater to a similar audience thirsting for information. He didn’t name specific networks but channels such as Discovery, History and A&E have thrived with shows such as “Pawn Stars” and “Duck Dynasty.”

Kent noted that in the past, CNN has tried programs about sports, fashion and technology.

“News is more than just politics and war,” Zucker said. “We’re not going to stray from the journalism that is the hallmark of CNN and the breaking news that CNN has owned for 32 years. But at the same time, we live in a world where nonfiction programming comes in many forms.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.