Among the reasons CNN Worldwide chief Jeff Zucker may be the best thing that’s happened to the news operation in a while is his ability to make noise — Zucker gives great interviews. Most recently, he gave his first one-on-one interview since taking the gig last January, to Capital New York, which reported he “plans massive change at CNN.”
Actually it might be bigger news if he didn’t plan massive change at CNN, but, anyway, Capital said today that, after almost a year of tinkering, Zucker has concluded that a news channel cannot subsist on news alone. Zucker’s in good company here, most major news organizations having come to that conclusion a while ago. Capital warned this new thinking is likely to make “CNN traditionalists cringe.” By CNN traditionalists, Capital NY means “older viewers.” The publication also noted CNN’s “vanilla coverage” was once a point of pride. By “vanilla coverage” it means “straight reporting,” which had been CNN’s trademark. Zucker told Capital he wants news coverage “that is just not being so obvious.” He wants more of “an attitude and a take.”
“We’re all regurgitating the same information. I want people to say, ‘You know what? That was interesting. I hadn’t thought of that,’” Zucker said. “The goal for the next six months, is that we need more shows and less newscasts. He wants the network to attract “viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E.” If that sounds familiar — back in May at the All Things Digital conference in Ranchos Palos Verdes, CA, Zucker told attendees, “News is how you define it; we define it broadly as news and information. We’re expanding the audience that is watching CNN. In order to be successful, we need to bring new viewers,” stressing that elements of CNN programming have more in common now with Discovery and Nat Geo than FNC and MSNBC. At the time of that conference, CNN was touting the fact that its program Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown had, in May, raised the network’s news demo performance in its slot by more than 250%, and overall audience by more than 70%, compared to May 2012. This week, Zucker told Capital that the No. 1 show on CNN is: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, which the publication describes as “a travel-adventure show featuring the bad-boy celebrity chef.” Zucker, in the interview, said that inside CNN, his formula has finally been accepted “because people have seen the results.”
He also explained to Capital that HLN is being overhauled, despite its ratings successes, because advertisers don’t like the product so much.
Zucker hinted the docu-films CNN has been running on the weekend could get some weekday primetime play. “Yes, there will be more and, yes, they will not just be on Sundays…I think it will expand past just the weekends, and so there’s a little piece of news for you… This is a primetime play. It’s too expensive to confine it to weekends,” he told Capital.
The challenge here is that each docu has to be sold to viewers. While Blackfish — the docu on killer whales CNN premiered on its lineup in October — was a big ratings success (1.36 million viewers; 472,000 in news demo), the one about nuclear power it premiered two weeks later, Pandora’s Promise, caused a time slot meltdown (345,000 viewers in its premiere; 145,000 in the news demo).
Maybe the bigger news of the interview got mentioned toward the end of the piece, when Capital wrote: “In five years,” Zucker continued, “mobile video consumption with three little red letters called CNN is what the future looks like. I think that there are three incredible brands in the news and information space. I think ESPN owns sports, I think the Weather Channel owns weather, and I want CNN to own news and information in the global digital video space.”