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Jeff Zucker Has Endured Cancer, Hollywood, and Being TV’s Wunderkind. So Why Not Take on CNN?

Zucker was hired to try, and the vigor with which he threw himself into the project showed how much he really wanted a win after a string of perceived losses. He spent his first official day in CNN’s Washington control room barking orders during coverage of Obama’s second inauguration. He quickly improved CNN’s onscreen graphics and brought back the iconic tagline. “I grew up watching CNN, and my memory of CNN is James Earl Jones saying, ‘This is CNN,’ ” he told me. He began leading the network’s 9 a.m. editorial meeting, something his predecessor never did. “He gave the place a jolt of energy it had never received during my tenure,” said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who worked on the Harvard Crimson with Zucker. Anderson Cooper related to colleagues that Zucker was “the first CNN president to actually watch CNN.” Junior producers were starry-eyed in meetings with their new boss.

Still, there was growing angst inside CNN about the fact that many of Zucker’s early programming concepts fizzled. It wasn’t just New Day.Crossfire, which Zucker reinstated after an eight-year absence, failed to gain traction and is now on an indefinite hiatus. Jake Tapper, a Zucker recruit from ABC News, has only produced a modest ratings uptick. Last September, Zucker launched a 10 p.m. panel show hosted by Cooper but canceled it four months later. “It was like an Upper West Side dinner party. You’d want to light yourself on fire if you found yourself there,” a senior staffer said. In February, he also canceled Piers Morgan’s interview show, which he had inherited. Conventional cable-news shows just weren’t working, Zucker concluded. “It’s very difficult to find talent,” he complained to a friend. Not to mention an audience.

In some ways, the trouble was with the news itself. CNN did well when there was an earthquake or plane crash or presidential election that people wanted to know about. But when those events faded from the popular conversation, so did CNN. “These are the slow news periods we cannot control,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington-bureau chief. And so, this fall, Zucker is embarking on the riskiest gamble in CNN’s four-decade history. To try to lure viewers to CNN in prime time, he is turning over the 9 o’clock hour — which had been devoted to talk since the days of Larry King—to high-quality (and expensive) original entertainment programming. Over the past year, CNN has rolled out nonfiction series like The Sixties,produced by Tom Hanks, and documentaries such as the SeaWorld exposé Blackfish. Currently, the highest-rated show on CNN is the weekly travel program hosted by Anthony Bourdain. On September 28, the network launched a series with Lisa Ling; this week brings the debut of Mike Rowe. By next year, Zucker will have a dozen original series and six documentaries in CNN’s schedule. He even developed fictional scripts based on historical events, though those projects were ultimately scrapped. “We’re doing some things that antagonize people who are so protective of the legacy of CNN,” he said. “We have to change.”

It’s not that he’s giving up on news. When there is a news event that captures the public imagination, it will dominate CNN and preempt the prime-time shows. Zucker calls it “swarming and owning the big breaking-news stories.” The strategy was most vividly on display during CNN’s breathless—and seemingly endless — coverage of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, lowlighted by anchor Don Lemon speculating on camera that the missing plane might have flown into a black hole. (Zucker was frustrated by the gaffe: “Don, don’t be an idiot.”) During the crisis-filled summer of 2014, Zucker flooded CNN newscasts with coverage of the Veterans Affairs scandal, war in Ukraine, the Ebola epidemic, the Israel-Gaza conflict, and the rise of isis. His decisions are based in part on what topics are getting traffic online; he starts every editorial meeting with the head of CNN.com briefing the producers on the top five stories on CNN’s site. It seems to be paying off. Last month, during the height of the Ferguson protests, CNN beat Fox News in prime time on five consecutive nights in the coveted 25-to-54 demographic. “Chaos is good for CNN,” Zucker said.

Zucker’s give-the-people-what-they-want philosophy has attracted plenty of dissent from critics inside the organization who think (a) his entertainment programming is anathema to Ted Turner’s founding maxim that “the news is the star”; or (b) that news coverage driven by ratings rather than import is journalistically suspect; or (c) both.

According to CNN sources, Tapper vented to colleagues about having to cover the George Zimmerman trial so extensively, and Cooper protested the MH370 marathon. As for the entertainment programming, a veteran producer told me that it was “akin to McDonald’s taking reservations for dinner.”