Jeff Zucker May Actually Be Crazy Enough To Save CNN

Business Insider

View gallery

.
Jeff Zucker

Chris Kleponis/Getty

Jeff Zucker is trying to save CNN after helping NBC's ratings during the network's "Must See TV" era.

There's an obvious shift in the CNN newsroom these days.

Jeff Zucker, 47, who took over as President of CNN Worldwide from Jim Walton in January, made sure to choose an office that puts him in the center of the action on the same floor as the news teams.

"He is very present, always walking through the newsroom and giving direct feedback," one CNN employee tells Business Insider. "He will email the anchors and tell them exactly what he likes, there's a lot of positive reinforcement."

Adds the source, "There's definitely a noticeable shift in energy — for the better."

Before Zucker took the reins at the struggling news network, there were many high-profile names thrown in the ring trying to get the gig.

But ultimately, it was Zucker  — the short kid from Miami who won his high school class presidency based on the slogan "The little man with big ideas"  —  who proved most qualified for the job because he was willing to take the most chances.

With their fledgling ratings, CNN had nothing to lose and believed Zucker would be just the visionary for the job.

Why? Well, he's done it before.

At age 26, Zucker re-vamped NBC's "Today" show, launching a 16-year ratings winning streak. And it wasn't long before he was running the entire NBC Universal empire; including cable networks, a movie studio, and amusement parks.

After being removed from his perch in 2010 by NBC’s then-new parent company, Comcast, Zucker has currently had five months under his belt to prove why he's —  as CNN's slogan states —  “the most trusted name in news.” 

View gallery

.
Jeff Zucker Meredith Vieria Matt Lauer Today

AP

Zucker launched the "Today" show's 16-year winning streak.

The "Today" show

At age 25, Jeff Zucker landed at NBC's "Today" show in 1986 after Harvard Law rejected him.

A graduate of Harvard undergrad, the law school was his top and only choice. And there went his law career.

Soon, Zucker  landed a job with NBC as a research assistant for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. 

His enthusiasm and writing impressed the then co-anchor of "Today," Jane Pauley, who helped him parlay his research gig into a full-time  field producer position on the morning show. 

The wunderkind quickly rose through the ranks and was promoted to executive producer of the "Today" show — at age 26.

Michael Gartner, then president of NBC News, recalled to Fortune in 2007: "He changed the entire atmosphere almost instantly. 'Today' wasn't doing well. Everyone was sour and dour. Jeff had this enthusiasm and ability to make snap decisions that made people feel, 'We can do this. We can be the best.'"

Zucker's recipe for success consisted of six main ingredients:

  1. He eliminated commercials in the morning show's first 22 minutes.
  2. Increased hard-news coverage.
  3. Having the presidential candidates on-air for hour-long interviews.
  4. Launched viewer call-ins.
  5. Staged summer concerts in Rockefeller Plaza.
  6. Promoted Katie Couric, the show's new co-anchor, as TV's freshest star.

Zucker immediately saw a rise in ratings and thus, the "Today" show's 16-year-long winning streak began —  all thanks to the aggressive 26-year-old kid from Miami who NBC staffers called "Doogie Howser."

It seemed as if nothing could slow him down. Until ...

View gallery

.
Jeff Zucker Wife

AP

Zucker says the health scare prompted him to spend more time with his wife, Caryn Stephanie Nathanson, and their four children.

Zucker is diagnosed with colon cancer — it changes his life

In 1996, the "Today" show was in a transition period and Zucker's own life was in jeopardy.

Matt Lauer, who tells Fortune he credits Zucker with "plucking him from obscurity" and casting him on "Today," said it all came to a head one October day in 1996, three months before he was set to replace Bryant Gumbel as co-anchor.

"There was a knock on my door. Jeff came in and said, 'I have to tell you something important. Yesterday I was diagnosed with colon cancer. I need to have surgery in the next week. But I'm going to be here for your transition.' The kid was 31."

Zucker didn't let the cancer slow down his fast-tracked career.

He would schedule chemotherapy sessions every Friday afternoon so that he could then go home and sleep all weekend, and be rested up just in time to return to the office on Monday.

"I didn't want anyone to think that I couldn't do the job," he told Fortune of the high/low time in his life. 

"It put my life into perspective," he later told  Bloomberg Businessweek magazine  in 2004. "I want to win and win honorably. But heck, it's only television."

Zucker says the health scare also prompted him to spend more time with his wife, Caryn Stephanie Nathanson , and their four children.

To keep the cancer from recurring, Zucker eventually removed 90% of his colon. "I would never say that [beating cancer] made me feel invincible — b ut it's prepared me for almost anything."

From Producer to Network Executive to CEO and President of NBC Universal

View gallery

.
Jeff Zucker NBC

AP

"Zucker's job was now bigger that just producing a morning program, he was now responsible for making deals, identifying trends and forging partnerships for the network."

After successfully revamping the "Today" show, Zucker was promoted to President of NBC Entertainment in 2000.

There was a learning curve.

Jeff Immelt, the CEO of GE, told Fortune, " Jeff still has to work on external focus.  The crosscurrents in the media industry - technology changes, shifts in the competitive field - are so fluid that you have to have antennae."

Meaning that Zucker's job was now bigger that just producing a morning program — he was now responsible for making deals, identifying trends and forging partnerships for the network.

Zucker understood the game, and found success once again.

A 2004 Businessweek profile stated that "During that time he oversaw NBC's entire entertainment schedule. He kept the network ahead of the pack by airing the gross out show 'Fear Factor,' negotiating for the cast of the hit series 'Friends' to take the series up to a tenth season, and signing Donald Trump for the reality show 'The Apprentice.' The Zucker era produced a spike in operating earnings for NBC, from $532 million the year he took over to $870 million in 2003."

To this day, Zucker is given credit for coming up with the idea to "supersize" the hit show "Friends," making it ten minutes longer than other shows and convincing the cast to extend their contracts for another two years.

The "Friends" era is one of NBC's most profitable periods to date.

Zucker soon oversaw the entire  NBC Universal empire as CEO and President; it included cable networks, a movie studio and amusement parks.   

He started the job by announcing his top four priorities:

  1. Making great content
  2. Growing the international business
  3. Managing costs
  4. Continuing the digital revolution. "There will be more change in the media business in the next five years than the last 50 years. We have to be open to change."

It wasn't all success, though

View gallery

.
Jeff Zucker

Kevork Djansezian/AP

After NBC fell to fourth place in the ratings, Zucker was ousted in 2010.

During Zucker's stint as head of NBC's television unit, the network fell from first to fourth place in the ratings. 

Critics blamed Zucker after, according to Fortune, " Primetime profits, which peaked at $650 million in 2003, have disappeared. NBCU's overall profits fell 6% in 2006, making it the only GE unit to post a decline."

But GE CEO Jeff Immelt didn't lay the blame on Zucker. "I really don't blame Jeff. I don't accept it, but I don't blame him.  He's cocky. I kind of like that."

Ultimately, Zucker was ousted from NBC in 2010 by NBC’s then-new parent company, Comcast. Some reports say he got a $30 million going away present.

He's loyal — except to Conan O'Brien

Jeff Zucker and Conan O'Brien have a longstanding rivalry that began while both were students at Harvard.

Zucker was the editor of the  Crimson, the daily newspaper, while O'Brien ran the Lampoon, the humor magazine. 

The two often pulled pranks on each other, with one ending in O'Brien in handcuffs after Zucker called the cops on the comedian for stealing his papers.

The two later climbed the NBC ranks together — one in front of the camera and the other behind.

But even worse than calling the cops on Conan in college, Zucker had O'Brien canned after the 2010 "Tonight Show" conflict in which Jay Leno ultimately ousted O'Brien.

View gallery

.
Katie Couric Jeff Zucker

AP

Zucker executive produced Katie Couric's new talk show before jumping to CNN. Their professional relationship goes back to their days at "Today."

After helping push Couric in the spotlight on "Today," the two reunited post-NBC for her 2012 syndicated talk show "Katie," in which Zucker served as executive producer.  Zucker has been kinder to his old "Today" show friend, Katie Couric.

That is, until he got the job as president of CNN Worldwide and left "Katie," with her blessing.

At CNN, Zucker has already hired many of his past colleagues  —  including a  senior vice president he snatched from "Katie" and a  former NBCUniversal VP Corporate Communications who will join CNN  as SVP Communications for CNN Worldwide.

Now here are all the changes Zucker has made to CNN in six months
  1. Original programming: "No Reservations" host Anthony Bourdain left the Travel Channel for an upcoming CNN Sunday show. Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock will host "Inside Man," a one-hour weekly series providing an intimate look into diverse sectors of American life from migrant farm workers to the elder care industry. And Ridley Scott's new series "Crime of the Century" will premiere on the network this month.
  2. CNN Films' "Girl Rising" – a global action campaign to educate girls around the world – debuted on CNN and CNN International June 16.
  3. Chris Cuomo left ABC News to join Kate Bolduan as co-host for the network's new morning show "New Day."
  4. He poached Jake Tapper for "The Lead with Jake Tapper" and is touting him as "the new face of CNN." [But it's not really working.]
  5. CNN partnered with BuzzFeed to launch a YouTube channel that gives BuzzFeed access to the network's video archives for use in creating mash-up news videos. It's all part of a a social media initiative designed to capitalize on the network's vast video archive.
  6. He's upping the entertainment coverage and hiring print reporters to appear on-air.
  7. Political power couple James Carville and Mary Matalin, who have been with the network since the early ‘90s, will be leaving. Conservative commentator and Red State blogger Erick Erickson is also out the door. Most significantly, executive vice president and managing editor Mark Whitaker announced he was stepping down to give Zucker “his own team and management structure and the freedom to communicate one clear vision to the staff.”
  8. “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," Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, tells Politico.

View gallery

.
Jeff Zucker

Charles Dharapak/AP

NYT media reporter Brian Stelter gives Zucker a "C" grade so far at CNN.

Mixed reviews so far

New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter tells Business Insider that he would give Zucker a "C" rating so far:

"I think it's way too soon to judge him. If we were a teacher, this is only the third or fourth week of class, we're not nearly at the end of the semester yet. It's going to take years to see what his vision for the network is. So I guess we would just give him the typical 'C' right now because that's what we would give anybody in the third or fourth week of class. It's barely been enough time to see what his intentions are."

After a botched Boston bombing report on CNN, Stelter admits "I think CNN has to think more about the quality of their product, because at the end of the day, that's what they're selling."

Zucker is up for the challenge

View gallery

.
Jeff Zucker

Mark Wilson/Getty

"The best years of my career were spent as a journalist, and in news, and this is a return to a daily form of where I felt most comfortable and had some really successful years."

"The best years of my career were spent as a journalist, and in news, and in some respects this is a return to a daily form of where I felt most comfortable and had some really successful years," Zucker told TheWrap in November before starting at CNN. "There's no doubt I made mistakes in the entertainment world, and I own those. But I feel really excited about being able to return to daily news both on television and in digital."

And just as Zucker has been known to tell his colleagues,  "We're in this together," the media mogul has at least one important person believing in him at CNN.

"I'm very familiar with all of Jeff's successes and all things he probably wishes might have turned out better," said Phil Kent, chairman and CEO of CNN parent company Turner Broadcasting System. "I was looking for a very specific talent here which would be someone who would be a great leader of a news organization. Whether Jeff Zucker was the greatest head of the NBC entertainment businesses or not was irrelevant to my search."



More From Business Insider

Rates