Jeff Zucker: The Blurring of Fact and Fiction

Dec 5, 2013

Reading CNN President Jeff Zucker’s comments yesterday about the future of CNN, I was struck in particular by one paragraph. Here it is, quoted from CapitalNewYork:

“The 48-year-old Zucker initially faced internal resistance to his experiments beyond the realm of hard news, but he now has an irrefutable retort: The No. 1 show on CNN is now ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,’ a travel-adventure show featuring the bad-boy celebrity chef. Zucker said that inside CNN, his formula has finally been accepted ‘because people have seen the results.’”

What struck me about this paragraph — and kudos to Washington Post news media blogger Erik Wemple for noticing this as well — is that Bourdain was recruited to come to CNN from the Travel Channel BEFORE Zucker was hired at CNN.

Here’s an excerpt of a report by David Carr of The New York Times that appeared on June 3, 2012, which was five months before it was announced that Zucker was going to CNN. And the person who hired Bourdain to come to CNN wasn’t Zucker, it was Mark Whitaker:

“Mark Whitaker, managing editor of CNN Worldwide, has been working to decrease the network’s reliance on politics, where its middle-of-the-road approach often suffers in comparison to the edgier, more partisan offerings of Fox News and MSNBC. He began talking with Mr. Bourdain back in March in the belief that the chef’s penchant for traveling to far-flung places like Thailand and Saudi Arabia was a fit with CNN’s international credentials. More important, Mr. Whitaker wanted CNN’s first move out of its lane to come with a ready-made audience attached. CNN has no trouble attracting eyeballs, it just has trouble persuading them to stick around when the world is not on fire.

“‘Tony is appointment viewing and sticky in a way that we need to be,’ Mr. Whitaker said on the phone. ‘We are big fans of what he does and what he stands for, which is global and smart, but he goes beyond politics and war coverage. We need to be broader than that and we are looking hard to make that happen. Tony was the first person that came to mind.’“

In the CapitalNewYork interview Zucker reiterates much of what he has previously said, most particularly that CNN needs to broaden its audience and attract viewers who don’t usually tune in to the network: He wants the network to attract “viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E,” the story said. Furthermore, Zucker added, “The goal for the next six months, is that we need more shows and less newscasts.”

Zucker also said HLN is in for a complete overhaul: It will be “‘rethought, reimagined, and rebranded’ to get away from the wall-to-wall courthouse coverage that earned HLN massive viewership during big events like the Jodi Arias and George Zimmerman trials. HLN ‘really just had a great year from an audience standpoint,’ he said, but: ‘it’s not as strong a business proposition, and it’s not really what advertisers are looking for. If we wanted to be in the court business, Time Warner would have kept Court TV.’“

That’s when it dawned on me that Zucker reminds me of another TV executive, our friend Frank Hackett, the Robert Duvall character in Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant 1976 movie "Network."

Hackett, as many of you will recall, was a top corporate TV executive at the UBS network.

People tell me — OK, no one told me this, but I have a healthy imagination to make things up — that when Zucker recently told some of the veteran CNN staff that he was going to reshape the network in the image of Bourdain’s show there was a big brouhaha and — either consciously or subconsciously (no one could tell) — Zucker started channeling Hackett and began shouting at the meeting, “You were hoping I’d fall on my face with this Bourdain show, but I didn’t! It’s a big, fat, big-titted hit, and I don’t have to waffle around in any of your shit anymore!”

Zucker, on a roll, continued: “And if you don’t like what I’ve done with Bourdain, you’re really going to hate what’s coming: The Network News Hour with Snooki the Soothsayer, weather with Miss Kellie Pickler, and commentary we’re calling Vox Populi, starring the mad prophet of the airwaves, Keith Olbermann. I’ve hired the Duck boys to come over here to do sports and commentary about our new Dress Like a Zombie hour. Already sponsored for the whole damn season by Urban Outfitters.

"Listen, come next year at this time I’m going to be standing up there at the annual Time Warner management review meeting, and I’m going to announce unprecedented projected earnings for this network. That we’ve never had advertisers more pleased. That HLN now stands for the Holy-shit Louis C.K. — Lady Gaga Network.“

At that moment Anderson Cooper got up to protest. Hackett, er, Zucker, basically told him that if he didn’t like the changes he could leave the company.

Cooper shot back: “Well, let’s just say, fuck you, Jeff. You want me out, you’re going to have to drag me out kicking and screaming. And almost everyone here will walk out kicking and screaming with me.”

Zucker didn’t blink: “You think they’re going to quit their jobs for you? Not in this economy, buddy.”

As Cooper was storming out of the meeting he turned to Zucker and said, threateningly, “I’m going to spread this whole reeking business in every paper and on every network, independent, group, and affiliated station in this country. I’m going to make a lot of noise about this.”

Without missing a beat Zucker replied, “Great! We can use all the press we can get.”

And the really funny thing is, while Paddy Chayefsky — whose dialogue I’ve mostly borrowed above — met plenty of TV executives over the years to use as the models for those he wrote about in “Network,” I don’t think he ever met Jeff Zucker.

5 Comments

  1. Zucker will be himself no matter where he lands …NBC … CNN …

  2. Wonder if a new catchphrase: Got Zucked? will catch on in TV-circles?

  3. When all you have is Anthony Bourdain as your #1 show, you should just close the doors and give up. The once mighty CNN is no more. What a shame and disgrace.

  4. Brilliant!

  5. HOWARD BEALE: I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.

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