Zucker To Transition From ‘Katie’ To CNN

"I’ll be [at Katie] for a few more weeks helping with the transition," he told reporters today when his appointment to the presidency of CNN was announced. "I’ll be leaving there by the middle of January.”

At this morning’s teleconference with reporters announcing his hiring as president of CNN, Jeff Zucker said he wasn’t running out immediately on Katie, the freshman talk show from Disney-ABC Domestic Television.

“Obviously, I will be working at CNN full time,” said Zucker, who helped Katie Couric get the show off the ground and has been its executive producer from the start.

“I’ll be [at Katie] for a few more weeks helping with the transition,” he told reporters. “I’ll be leaving there by the middle of January.”

For its part, a Disney-ABC spokeswoman said the show would soon be announcing Zucker’s successor and released a statement from the president, Janice Marinelli.

“We wish Jeff the very best as he embarks on his new venture,” the statement says. “He brought his wealth of experience, knowledge and vision to the creation and development of Katie. We are so proud of Katie, which is the No. 1 new syndicated show of the year. We thank Jeff for his leadership and contributions and wish him great success in his new role of President of CNN Worldwide.”

Katie is the No. 1 new talk show, but it has performed below expectations since debuting to a 2.8 household rating in September. Katie recently had its best full-week with a 2.1 household rating, based on the final week of the November sweeps.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

“I am really excited to be returning to daily news, which is where I am most comfortable,” Zucker also said during the teleconference.

Zucker is the former CEO of NBCUniversal and a one-time producer of NBC’s morning news show Today. He’ll start his new CNN job in January and report to Phil Kent, who runs all the Turner networks for parent company Time Warner.

Zucker will lead a large and profitable news organization with 23 separate businesses worldwide that has come to be defined by problems at the flagship U.S. network, particularly in prime time. CNN has never been able to solve the conundrum of how to keep viewers on quiet news days, while Fox News Channel and MSNBC have passed it by with combative programming that appeals to political partisans.

“The key is that CNN remain true to its ideals of great journalism but at the same time be vibrant and exciting,” Zucker said. “Just because you’re not partisan doesn’t mean you can’t be exciting.”

He said it was premature to offer specifics. Although he said it was his goal to beat Fox and MSNBC in the ratings, it was important to note that he sees the television competition more broadly.

“News is not just about politics and war,” he said.

CNN this summer said it was developing a program featuring celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, and Zucker cited it as some of the new thinking he’s hoping to see.

Kent said it was essential for CNN to build a base of hardcore fans who will stick with the network no matter the news of the day. Both Kent and Zucker said CNN has no plans to retreat from its stance of unbiased reporting.

“CNN does not have an identity problem,” Kent said. “CNN knows what it is and what its identity is. If anything, CNN has an execution problem.”

During this election year, CNN is averaging 763,000 viewers in prime time on weekdays, up 2 percent from 2011, according to the Nielsen company. Fox is averaging 2.5 million, up 13 percent from last year, and MSNBC is at 1.1 million, a 22 percent increase.

Anderson Cooper is CNN’s best-known news anchor, with a news show that airs at 8 and 10 p.m. ET. Piers Morgan hosts a nightly talk show modeled after Larry King’s. Wolf Blitzer, Erin Burnett, Candy Crowley, Soledad O’Brien and Sanjay Gupta are among the network’s most popular personalities.

Kent said he was seeking someone with news and television management experience who could be a magnet for talent. Zucker shot to fame in TV as executive producer of the Today show at the start of its morning dynasty in the 1990s. He was less successful as NBC’s entertainment president. As chief of NBC Universal, he couldn’t turn the flagship company around but oversaw a profitable and growing stable of cable networks.

Zucker replaces Jim Walton, who announced this summer that he was leaving.

Zucker was behind the ill-fated move of Conan O’Brien to the Tonight show, with Jay Leno’s brief and disastrous stay in prime time. But an unorthodox Zucker personnel decision — recruiting Meredith Vieira to replace Katie Couric on Today — was a big winner.

A brash and opinionated executive, Zucker rubbed many people in the Hollywood power structure the wrong way. But Kent said he was interested only in Zucker’s news experience.

“Whether Jeff Zucker was the best leader for NBC’s entertainment division was irrelevant to me,” he said.

Since leaving NBC Universal after its purchase by Comcast Corp., Zucker has helped his former Today show friend Katie Couric launch her daytime talk show. Couric said that she was excited for Zucker’s opportunity “and equally excited for CNN.”

Roger Ailes, top executive at Fox News, offered a welcome to Zucker on Thursday.

“I have known Jeff for a quarter of a century and he is one of the most experienced executives in the business,” Ailes said. “He is a talented producer with solid strategic skills and I’m sure he’ll make a difference at CNN. I wish Jeff the best.”

Tom Johnson, president of CNN during the 1990s, called Zucker’s hiring a “splendid choice.”

“I would hope it would be a return to CNN where news trumps all programming so CNN gets back to its basics of being a breaking news network,” Johnson said.

There was no word on the futures of Ken Jautz and Mark Whitaker, who have been running the flagship network on a day-to-day basis since Walton’s departure. Zucker will also have management control over HLN, CNN International and the CNN.com website.


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