One of the best analyses I’ve read about the appointment of Jeff Zucker as the new executive in charge of CNN was written by my good friend Brian Lowry. Lowry, Variety’s longtime TV critic, usually nails it, and he did yesterday as well.
Lowry wrote that in a press conference yesterday, Nov. 29, 2012, “Zucker repeatedly stressed maintaining CNN's journalistic values, but he, too, spoke of ’'broadening that definition of what news is’ and the need to compete with ‘anyone who produces nonfiction programming.’
“The goal, he said, is to respect CNN's tradition, ‘but not always being bound by it.’
“Practically speaking, if a primary objective hinges on improving the network's performance in primetime, that's a perfectly logical strategy. The problem is attempts to rival the appeal of ‘nonfiction programming’ -- a category so broad as to encompass reality shows that have virtually nothing to do with reality -- raise red flags about forays that have triggered criticism in the past, while highlighting the delicate balancing act any effort to ‘fix’ CNN entails.”
And clearly Zucker knows CNN must be careful in choosing how it broadens the definition of that is appropriate to air on its network. Thus, Zucker added during the press conference, “When I say nonfiction programming … I’m not talking about ‘Honey Boo Boo.’ But there is plenty of nonfiction programming that could fit very well under the CNN brand.”
OK, let’s figure out what that should be. I’m a big believer that much success can be derived from the KISS paradigm: Keep it simple, stupid.
So let’s look around the space in which CNN operates. Roger Ailes over at Fox News has created a juggernaut by brilliantly bringing conservative talk radio to TV. MSNBC finally figured out it could create a niche of its own by being the liberal/left alternative to Fox News.
CNN has staked out the “non-partisan” territory in between.
Phil Kent, the chairman and CEO of Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting System -- and the man who has hired Zucker -- was insistent during the press conference that “CNN doesn’t have an identity problem. We’ve had some executional problems. We can be executing more consistently, and not only in prime time.”
OK, so let’s say as a given that CNN’s “identity” will remain one that labels itself “non-partisan.”
I’ve long thought that what CNN should do is bring public radio to TV. Now hold on thar, fellow, you say, the TV equivalent to public radio is PBS.
Actually, it’s not.
How about NPR’s popular weekly comic news quiz program “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” becoming a weekend staple on CNN as well. The show already has a very loyal, upscale audience (here in L.A., it’s the single most popular show on NPR’s Southern California news showcase, KPCC) that would fit quite comfortably with CNN’s demo.
So far the only TV exposure I recall for “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” was an hour-long TV special a year ago on BBC America.
Wanna stretch the envelope? Develop a half-hour nightly version of “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” for CNN. Within weeks people will vaguely remember “Jon Who?” Please, as much as I like Stewart, is he really in the same class as “Wait Wait’s” Peter Sagal and -- dare I even mention his name out loud? -- the legendary “Wait Wait” antics of the great Carl Kasell? I think not, dear friends.
When it comes to interview shows, there are few "Piers" to public radio’s “Fresh Air.” Why isn’t CNN doing anything with the best interviewer in any medium, “Fresh Air’s” Terry Gross, who works out of WHYY in Philadelphia. Gross and her entire team -- including stalwarts Dave Davies, David Bianculli and Ken Tucker, just to name a few -- are stellar. Clearly CNN could use a little “Fresh Air.”
Public radio’s “This American Life” with Ira Glass and his crew did some outstanding work for Showtime, but that ended in 2008. Last year Current TV reran that series. Glass has said he and his staff don’t have time to do a regular, weekly TV version of the show. Maybe Zucker can talk him into starting with monthly specials, and then let’s see what happens.
It’s been three years or so since Lou Dobbs left CNN. How about CNN doing a nightly simulcast of public radio’s “Marketplace," with host Kai Ryssdal. The lively, sardonic Ryssdal would quickly become a hit on CNN.
Here's another one: A weekly CNN show called "Car Talk." This might be the easiest to get on-air quickly, since the two virtuoso's who created that mega-hit for NPR, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, stopped doing any new radio versions of the show in October -- though reruns continue to be popular running on public radio stations. I can see CNN's Greg D'Alba and the rest of his ad sales team salivating at the chance to bring a TV version of this show, with its accompanying upscale audience, to the Mercedes Benz's and BMW's of the world to sponsor.
You get the idea.
Zucker has the opportunity to make much of what’s on CNN a lot more compelling. An impressive beginning to that transition that would excite a lot of us would be to make CNN the TV version of the best of what public radio stands for and does best. It would be a great fit to what CNN already represents.