After four months of searching and endless speculation, it looks like Jeff Zucker will be the man to take the reins at CNN, the cable news network that nobody really takes seriously any more. That's not our read of CNN. According to New York Times reporter Brian Stelter, who got the scoop on Zucker's imminent appointment, it's everybody's. "Though CNN over all is on track to have its most profitable year ever, its flagship channel in the United States is seemingly rudderless, run by layers of producers and executives -- many with competing visions," Stelter writes. "The channel's low prime-time ratings are the stuff of punch lines and a journalism school case study in the damage wrought by the digital age."
Ouch! Taking into consideration the relative rocket-powered success of competitors Fox News and MSNBC, though, it does look like CNN needs a new leader that's more than fearless. It's needs one that's basically obsessed with success. Zucker is a good candidate in that respect. This guy was a stringer for The Miami Herald when he was in high school before going to Harvard and taking the top job at The Harvard Crimson. After snagging a job at NBC straight out of college, he rose to the rank of executive producer of Today by age 26 and was president of NBC Entertainment by 34. Five years later, he ran the entire network.
This doesn't mean that Zucker is good at his job. The 47-year-old has his critics, and vocal critics they are. A couple years ago, The Times's Maureen Dowd called him "a network Napoleon who never bothered to learn about developing shows and managing talent." A year earlier, in a New York Magazine piece unapologetically titled "Will Somebody Please Save NBC," Mark Harris labeled Zucker as a producer who made his name by "thinking brilliantly in three-to-six-minute increments and coming up with stunt programming" and framed his approach to broadcast TV as "the grudging caretaker of a dying giant." In other words, he was hardly the kind of guy to carrying a struggling network into modernity, since he was so dead set on sticking on sticking to the traditional model.
Jeff Zucker did not survive as NBC Universal's chief executive. The network reportedly paid him between $30 and $40 million to hit the road, and he's been running Katie Couric's daytime talkshow ever since. Overseeing the bloated empire that is CNN will certainly be a heck of a change of pace and a hell of a challenge. If he wasn't the one to save NBC, one can't help but wonder if he'll be the one to save CNN. Can he do it? Well think of it like this: Things can't get much worse.