CNN chief Jeff Zucker patted himself on the back again Friday — this time in re the amount of time his network has spent covering the George Zimmerman murder trial, instead of covering the coup in Egypt at the height of that unrest. “A bunch of bunk” is how he described the nicking his network has received at the hands of industry navel-lint gazers. “I feel increasingly comfortable and confident that we got it in the right balance,” Zucker said this morning at the IESE Business School, as reported by the AP. Industry critics are unused to the likes of Zucker at CNN; he’s a master of promotion, and this marks the second time he’s publicly patted himself on the back while critics howl, since he took over at CNN six months ago. Last time was during the network’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, during which the network suffered one of its biggest embarrassments ever when John King incorrectly reported an arrest had been made.
Last week, as the Egypt crisis came to a head, CNN International focused almost entirely on that situation while CNN domestically stayed laser-focused on the murder trial of Zimmerman, a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer. CNN’s coverage continued Friday, and when the jury began deliberations, the network boasted that its Martin Savidge scored the first in-depth interview with Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lead defense attorney, in which he discussed why he took the case, his first impressions upon meeting Zimmerman, “and his thoughts on race and its effects on the case.” CNN has done well, ratings-wise, with Zimmerman coverage — though not as well, naysayers note, as the cabler did in the second quarter in some dayparts.
Jeff Zucker has said that he’d consider CNN’s new morning show New Day a success if it beat the news network’s previous AM offerings in the ratings. That’s setting the bar pretty low for New Day which debuts at 6 AM ET on June 17 with recent ABC News transplant Chris Cuomo and Kate Bolduan as hosts, former KTLA morning show anchor Michaela Pereira as the news anchor and former Good Morning America chief Jim Murphy as Senior Executive Producer. Year to date Early Start and Starting Point averaged 308,000 total viewers and 123,000 in the Adults 25-54 demo from 6 AM to 9 AM for CNN. While up from last year, those numbers are still behind their cable rivals’ AM shows and way behind what the Big 3 networks pull in on their morning shows. On cable news, MSNBC’s Morning Joe has had 400,000 viewers and 139,000 among 25-54s YTD and Fox News Channel’s long time top spot Fox And Friends has averaged 1.141 million viewers and 274,000.
While CNN’s ratings have been up in recent months after hitting lows last year, the network’s track record of debuts hasn’t been so good since Zucker took over in late January. Almost all of the new shows or experiments that CNN has attempted of late have premiered poorly with the exception of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown – and that wasn’t a Zucker baby like New Day has been for the former Today boss who has said that CNN will more “broadly” define what news is. Deadline spoke with Bolduan and Cuomo as well as Murphy (who was at Anderson Cooper’s syndicated talk show until this January) recently about the expectations for the show, fighting Fox & Friends, how much Zucker’s was involved with the new show, CNN’s bump and the difference between cable and network news.
DEADLINE: From the time that Jeff Zucker took over at CNN he said that a morning show was a top priority, so how is New Day going to get CNN some traction in the morning?
MURPHY: It’s going get some traction by being a very good morning news program. Without giving away too much, I would say that what you should expect is a very busy, energetic, story filled and information filled, fast moving, interesting morning news program with a broad range of stories and topics and a lot of resources from CNN helping to lift it up and cover a lot of things.
DEADLINE: OK, but, Jim, Chris and Kate, are you guys going to beat Fox and Friends?
BOLDUAN: We’re not going into it with the goal of beating Fox & Friends. We’re going into it with the goal of making a news program that we are proud of and that we want to watch. And that’s our goal. And do we want to improve our ratings? Do we want people to watch our show? Absolutely. We wouldn’t be in the business if we didn’t. Is there a perfect formula that we can apply with a surefire win in the ratings game? No. If I had that recipe I could sell it for a lot of money. So we are going to, first and foremost, put on a strong news program, a show that we ourselves will be proud of and want to watch, and we’re also allowing ourselves flexibility to evolve the show. Day one is not going to look like day one hundred and one. And that’s where our focus will be. And we’re not going to be picking a partisan angle. That’s not what CNN does and this is a news program that will stick very firmly with the CNN brand of news.
Katie Couric‘s syndicated daytime talk show will be entering its second season with an entirely new team of senior producers and a director. Two weeks after Rachel Miskowiec was brought in as new executive producer, she has made a staffing changes, with co-executive producers Kathy Samuels and Ethan Nelson as well as director Joseph Terry departing. Katie launched last fall with Jeff Zucker as executive producer and Samuels and Michael Bass as co-exec producers. Zucker and Bass have since left for CNN, with Michael Morrison and Nelson joining in January as executive producer and co-exec producer, respectively. (Matt Strauss also was bumped to co-EP then.) Morrison left late last month, replaced by Miskowiec, who is expected to install her own team.
“Those two channels are covering political news. We’re covering politics and much more,” Jeff Zucker said today of Fox News and MSNBC. “Our competition now is two political channels that have actually left most of the actual news coverage to the side,” he also said. The CNN chief was appearing Wednesday with IAC chair Barry Diller at this year’s D11 conference in Ranchos Palos Verdes. “News is how you define it, we define it broadly as news and information. We’re expanding the audience that is watching CNN. In order to be successful, we need to bring new viewers,” he added stressing that elements of CNN programming have more in common now with Discovery and Nat Geo than FNC and MSNBC. “The key to us is to make CNN essential on whatever platform it is on,” Zucker noted. He added that his cable news rivals “do a good job” at what they cover.
“Protecting the brand is the key and one of the things I’ve been so warmed by is how strong and vibrant the CNN brand continues to be even when their ratings have not been what they used to be,” Zucker responded to a question from the audience about some of the less than hard news stories the network has covered since he took over. “I don’t think that hurt the CNN brand, he said of the network’s extensive coverage of the crippled Carnival Triumph cruise liner earlier this year. Zucker also was on the defensive about errors that CNN have made under his watch. “We made a mistake in Boston and we corrected it within 45 minutes of airing. The Boston Globe, who I think will probably win the Pulitzer Prize for their Boston coverage, didn’t correct for hours,” he said of the cable news network’s incorrect on-air assertion that an arrest had been made in the Boston Marathon bombing case.
The morning newscast, which launches June 17, is a top priority for the CNN chief. And while it won’t break the mold, Jeff Zucker says in a briefing today that the effort will stand out over time by blending hard news with a relatively young anchor team featuring Chris Cuomo and Kate Bolduan, and news anchor Michaela Pereira. When he ran NBC’s Today Show “we did play with a lot of gimmicks. Cooking segments and outdoor concerts. Those are not going to be part of this kind of program…People are coming to CNN for the news.” Zucker says New Day won’t try to mimic MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “Its success has been with an elite audience but not with a broad audience. We’re not after a niche audience.” He praised the news focus of CBS This Morning but says New Day will have “a slightly different tone that you’ll get from a new generation.” He hopes to get a jump on his rivals by starting New Day at 6 AM. “The one time of day when people don’t necessarily know what’s happening is when they wake up,” he says.
CNN isn’t the only place Jeff Zucker is looking to make changes, it seems. Sister network HLN could be getting at least one new show from the new regime, I’ve learned. Coming off a ratings and viewership surge from the Jodi Arias trial, the network is looking to hold on to some of those numbers with a possible replacement for its 5-7 PM show Evening Express. Last week, HLN shot a newsmagazine pilot in Atlanta going by the working title of EXP 2.0. Weekend Express’ Natasha Curry, Atlanta traffic reporter Elle Duncan, and Carlos Diaz, the sports anchor on the network’s Morning Express With Robin Meade, hosted. Frequent CNN and HLN contributor Jawn Murray as well as Atlanta talk-show host Kim Gravel also were tapped for on-air roles on the pilot. Other elements were shot earlier in the month, sources say. Angela Massie, current executive producer of Evening Express, produced the new show.