Jeff Zucker promised to change CNN. He's doing so, and fast.
In the last 24 hours, CNN has poached yet another big name from ABC News, dropped one top executive and saw the departure of three well-known contributors, and announced the launch of a new morning program that, according to network sources, will have ripple effects on the primetime programming.
The changes are part of Zucker's larger effort to transform CNN from an old, tired, 24-hour breaking news channel into an entertaining, personality driven network that no longer restricts the definition of news to "war, famine, pestilence and politics," as CNN host Piers Morgan recently put it to POLITICO. Zucker has told staff he wants to "broaden the definition of what news is," meaning more sports, more entertainment, more human interest stories -- and, at times, less politics.
"What is clearly the case is CNN is going to try to do something that's as dynamic and as far out there in some ways as any other news station has done," Paul Levinson, a professor of media studies at Fordham University, told POLITICO. "That's the only way they can stay competitive."
In a recent town-hall meeting with staff at CNN New York, Zucker said the network needed more "differentiation," sources present at the meeting told POLITICO. At Fox News and MSNBC, both of which trump CNN in the ratings, programming is driven by the network's personalities, and each show is different. On CNN, especially in daytime, most programming runs together as an endless cycle of breaking news updates. Zucker wants to change that.
"Under Whitaker, there was this idea, which I think made a lot of sense, that what CNN could do that others couldn't do as well is always be able to give old-school, hard news from places all over the world," Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, told POLITICO. "Zucker has come out recently making the argument that one has to come up with programming that people will watch when there isn't breaking news."
Creating a successful morning show is especially important to Zucker, who became famous as a 26-year-old executive producer of NBC's "Today" show. In a statement Tuesday morning, Zucker described Cuomo, a former "Good Morning America" co-host, as "an accomplished anchor who is already an established name in morning television." Meanwhile, CNN sources tell POLITICO that Zucker will likely pick Erin Burnett, a primetime host on CNN, to join Cuomo on the show, which has yet to be named.
(The fate of CNN's current morning show host, Soledad O'Brien, remains uncertain. O'Brien's program has always rated poorly, and Zucker has been hinting at a reorganization since even before he officially took the helm at CNN. A spokesperson told POLITICO that O'Brien was "discussing various options" with the network.)
Cuomo's hire is the latest in a string of transfers from ABC News, which has proven fertile ground for CNN. In recent months, they have poached ABC News White House correspondent Jake Tapper, who will have his own show on CNN, and "Good Morning America" senior Washington producer Virginia Moseley, who now serves as CNN vice president and deputy Washington bureau chief. CNN also hired John Berman, the former ABC News correspondent and "Good Morning America" contributor, last May.
Last week, Zucker also announced the hire of sports reporter Rachel Nichols from ESPN. Nichols, who will also work for Turner Sports, will anchor a new weekend sports program on CNN and contribute throughout the week. The hire shows Zucker's commitment to expanding CNN's programming beyond its traditional news parameters. In a memo to staff, he said Nichols hire was "an important step in expanding the range of programming and storytelling on CNN."
Such a strategy would have been all but unheard of at the CNN just a few years ago -- a fact hinted at by Whitaker, who joined the network in 2010, in his outgoing email to staff this morning.
"[W]ith Jeff Zucker's arrival, we have a new leader with his own forceful ideas about where to take CNN's reporting, programming and brand," Whitaker wrote. "For him to succeed, I believe he deserves his own team and management structure and the freedom to communicate one clear vision to the staff. I have shared that conclusion with him and he has agreed to let me step down as Managing Editor and move on from CNN."
"As someone who worked with Jeff at NBC, I know what a bold innovator he is, and I wish him and you all the best as you embark on CNN's next great adventure," Whitaker added.
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