Five things Jeff Zucker must do to revive CNN
First on the agenda is finding an identity for the struggling cable news network
November 30, 2012
This morning CNN confirmed what’s been rumored for days.
Jeff Zucker, the former head of NBCUniversal, is becoming president of CNN Worldwide in January.
Zucker faces a very difficult task in turning around the first cable news network, which has fallen behind Fox News Channel and even longtime third-place network MSNBC.
CNN’s ratings in primetime hit a two-decade low earlier this year.
Over recent years it has ripped up its morning, midday and primetime schedules, added new faces, dismissed old ones, and even toyed with airing weekend reality shows in an effort to revive ratings
But what the network really needs is an identity.
Defining and building a clear identity for CNN should be Zucker’s No. 1 priority moving forward.
An identity is essential to any 21st-century news operation. Viewers like to know what they are getting when they seek out the news.
That is why Fox News and MSNBC, with their clearly delineated left and right viewpoints, have thrived while CNN wilted.
It can't be a faux identity, either. It has to be real, palpable, and in your face, something that lives and breathes every minute CNN is broadcasting.
CNN has tried defining itself as not Fox News and not MSNBC. That has not worked. A true identity must reflect what you are, not what you are not.
CNN's identify from the start was news. It delivered news Americans could trust, and for that reason it became hugely successful and remained so for years.
Any identity CNN creates for itself going forward must logically tie back to that legacy.
In addition to finding a clear identity, here are four other things that Zucker needs to do in his new role.
1. Revamp primetime
There are currently just two primetime shows in CNN’s lineup, the 8 p.m. “Anderson Cooper 360,” which repeats at 10, and the 9 p.m. “Piers Morgan Tonight.”
This lineup doesn't work. To begin with, it makes no sense to run a repeat of "Cooper" at 10.
Zucker should move “Cooper” back to his original 10 p.m. time and come up with new shows at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.
If CNN is a true news network, it should be running news in primetime.
Zucker should move Morgan’s program to weekends. The show is inconsistent. Were he relocated to weekends, he'd have fewer shows and could fine tune them better.
2. Cut the junk
Zucker needs to chop the entertainment/reality/filler programs off CNN's schedule and beef it up with shows that fit the network’s new identity, whatever it may be.
CNN recently wooed Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain to host a rumored weekend reality show. Entertaining as Bourdain is, does that sort of filler really belong on a cable news network?
No. By all appearances it's a classic example of a network chasing ratings at the expense of its identity.
No one knows this better than Zucker, who was roundly criticized for debasing NBC’s brand by greenlighting shows like “Fear Factor."
3. Emphasize quality
Zucker needs to rebuild CNN's news gathering operations
There’s a reason people turn to CNN for breaking news. The network has developed a trust with viewers through its three decades.
There's a huge risk that comes with sacrificing quality: losing that trust.
Earlier this year, in a rush to beat the other news channels to the story, the network incorrectly reported that the Supreme Court had knocked down Obamacare, when in fact it upheld the president's healthcare law. That's the sort of mistake CNN would not have made in past years.
4. Accept that the news has changed
The cable news world is completely different than it was 10 years ago. CNN will never draw the ratings it did when it was the sole cable news network.
It may well never regain the No. 1 spot from Fox News, which has dominated for so long. It may permantly regain the No. 2 spot from MSNBC, which it tends to trade off with.
What it can do is offer viewers and advertisers a first-rate cable news network. And it can only gain both viewers and advertisers by doing so.
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