Morning show is latest CNN change under Zucker
For anyone watching CNN, it’s been hard to miss the sunny reminders popping up on the bottom of the screen that Monday is the debut of the New Day morning show.
New Day will feature the team of Chris Cuomo, Kate Bolduan and Michaela Pereira in a three-hour telecast CNN promises will be newsy but not drowsy, an attempt to establish a morning program for a new generation.
Watching closely, probably from a New York control room, will be CNN boss Jeff Zucker. Not only are morning shows in his wheelhouse – he produced NBC’s Today in the 1990s – but the program also represents the biggest on-air change at CNN since the former NBC Universal chief took on the task of reshaping the pioneering news network in January.
“It’s very important that we have a really good and strong morning show,” Zucker said. “I want a show that sets the tone and the agenda for the day for the entire network.”
On weekday mornings, CNN has lagged behind Fox News Channel and MSNBC, which have distinctive shows in Fox & Friends and Morning Joe. Even CNN sister network HLN sometimes does better with Robin Meade’s Morning Express.
The former NBC Universal top executive has tackled issues large and small since starting in January. As chief executive, Zucker has tried to erase a losing mentality and strengthen CNN’s news identity while keeping audiences interested during slow periods. Little touches, like bringing back James Earl Jones’s booming voice to announce “This is CNN” are reminiscent of his old days as a line producer.
By the industry’s chief scorecard, CNN viewership is up 18 percent from 2012 throughout the day and night, the Nielsen Co. said. That puts CNN back into second place behind Fox, moving past slumping MSNBC. MSNBC is still second during weekday prime time, but its viewership is down 11 percent and CNN is up 9 percent, Nielsen said.
Naysayers try to diminish the accomplishment by noting that CNN hit rock bottom last year with some of its worst ratings ever and is benefiting from a strong news period now.
But it beats the alternative.
“There was a real sense of energy when Jeff came in – a new energy, a resurrection,” Bolduan said. “People see possibilities. When you’re down in the ratings, that can get to you.”
Bolduan is an early beneficiary. Erin Burnett was considered the top candidate for the morning job, but those talks broke down and both Zucker and Cuomo said they were thrilled by the chemistry when Bolduan did a screen test.
Zucker hired Cuomo from ABC, where he hosted a newsmagazine but yearned to be back in the daily action. Jake Tapper is another hire from ABC whose own later afternoon hour, “The Lead,” is considered a template for Zucker’s mantra to broaden the definition of news. CNN is also devoting the noon hour primarily to international news.
The primetime lineup is unchanged, but alternatives are being considered. CNN ran a discussion show, (Get To) The Point, that failed both commercially and critically during a one-week tryout in March. The network also test-drove a new, more talk-oriented show hosted by Anderson Cooper in the same 10 p.m. hour. CNN is expected to revive its dormant political show Crossfire, though it’s unclear where it would air.
There has been some predictable turnover with a new regime. Soledad O’Brien, Ali Velshi, Roland Martin and the husband-and-wife analyst team of James Carville and Mary Matalin are among the people who have left.
Like his predecessors, Zucker has shown no interest in having CNN taking political sides as Fox does with a lineup that appeals to conservatives and MSNBC to liberals.
“There’s plenty of room in the middle,” he said at an Atlanta press club meeting recently. “But it doesn’t give you the right to be boring. Too often, we haven’t been vibrant enough.”
He’s a proponent of “flooding the zone,” or devoting extensive resources and overwhelming air time to stories believed to warrant them. That earned some ridicule this winter when CNN applied the concept to the story of a disabled cruise ship where bathrooms didn’t function for five days. The aggressiveness cuts both ways: CNN’s Martin Savidge scooped other outlets in Cleveland with his interview with the brothers of the man accused of keeping three women captive for years. But John King jumped the gun in falsely reporting the arrest of a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.
“It seems like they have some favorable momentum,” said Brian Wieser, senior analyst for Pivotal Research. “You can argue whether or not the style of news is better or worse.”
Truly judging Zucker’s imprint will take much more time, analysts say.
Zucker has accelerated an effort to diversify CNN’s programming, particularly on the weekend. There have been some early results, too: Anthony Bourdain’s Sunday night show, Parts Unknown, is considered a success. Frank Sesno, a former CNN bureau chief now teaching at George Washington University, said it’s one of the few CNN shows his students actually talk about.
The idea is that CNN should compete for viewers against all networks, not just news networks.
Celebrity chef Bourdain’s series is a travelogue seen through the prism of food. Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock is about to premiere his own series, Inside Man, that examines little-known sectors of American life. A Ridley Scott series Crimes of the Century will profile some colorful criminals. CNN is also increasing its production of documentary films; 10 are expected to air this year. Some of them will have weekday premieres.
Canadian talk show host George Stroumboulopoulos began talking to CNN executives last year about a weekend show and admitted being nervous when a new boss took over. But Zucker was encouraging and the summer fill-in series began last week.
“It’s both a smart and necessary thing to both demonstrate that you are true to your brand – that you are going to be the pre-eminent news source – while bringing in some more personality, edge and variety,” Sesno said.
New Day represents the chance for CNN to bring that philosophy to the morning.