After nearly 21 months as the president of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker has determined that the cable news business, which the network created more than 34 years ago, is not a “very healthy” medium. As a result, he has turned his attention to developing non-fiction series instead of news programs, in an effort to reverse the network’s recent ratings struggles:
‘In primetime in the last five years, in the demo, Fox has lost 41 percent of its audience, MSNBC has lost 27 percent of its audience, HLN has lost 13 percent of its audience, and CNN has actually grown its audience by two percent,’ he noted. ‘Fox is still a dominant number one in the ratings, but they’ve lost 41% of the demo… They’re still a solid number one, so I’m not taking anything away from them.’
‘When you look at that trend line, you realize that’s not a very healthy genre.’
Zucker made his remarks at a press luncheon for Lisa Ling’s new CNN program, This is Life, which will make its debut on Sunday night at 10 p.m.
Maybe the cable news business isn’t very healthy for CNN—after all they have rarely managed to finish above third-place in the ratings for the past few years—but Fox News is doing very well. Not only do they dominate the cable news ratings in both total day and primetime, they usually rank as one of the top four programs in all of cable. It was largely due to the profitability of Fox News that Rupert Murdoch decided to split the company in half, with Fox News and film studio 20th Century Fox being paired to form a new company to “unlock” shareholder value. That value was being restrained by the publishing business, which was left to fend for itself as a separate company.
Zucker added that CNN executives have noticed a significant interest from advertisers for this type of programming, and that he anticipates having 12 such series in 2015, up from two currently.
CNN won’t totally abandon the news. But, since in Zucker’s view cable news is dying, news will be de-emphasized as these series take hold, though they will continue to cover the major stories and breaking news.
In reality, though, the reason Zucker is moving CNN away from its cable news roots is that he has failed to turn the network around and he needs a new plan to save his job. The onetime wunderkind of NBC’s Today show has failed as a cable news programmer—think Crossfire—and desperately needs something to be able to show that he knows how to run a network.
The clock is ticking.