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

Outside the network, the chorus of Zucker’s detractors has grown even louder. In March, not long before Vice Media entered into ultimately unsuccessful talks about taking over HLN, Vice co-founder Shane Smith slagged CNN in the Daily News: “Everything they do is a fucking disaster.” In April, Saturday Night Live mocked Zucker’s missing-plane coverage with a fake commercial for a CNN-branded pregnancy test that constantly updates with no information. In July, Jon Stewart announced a $10 billion Kickstarter campaign to buy the network.

Zucker responds to the attacks with a mixture of bluster and prickliness. “I don’t take Vice seriously,” he said. “They produce 15 hours of television [a month]. We’re going to do that between now and tonight.” Jon Stewart, too: “We’re on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He’s doing one seven-minute monologue four nights a week with 20 writers.”

Zucker tries to see the arrows flying his way as a measure of progress. “People talk a lot more about CNN today,” he said. “I’m a big believer in ‘It’s all good.’ ” When SNL’s Lorne Michaels called to give him a heads-up about the plane sketch, Zucker told him to just make sure they spell CNN right.

One bright morning in August, Zucker bounded into a conference room on the fifth floor of CNN headquarters for a meeting with his programming staff. He wore trim, gunmetal-gray slacks and a matching golf shirt. About a dozen men and women were waiting to brief him on the status of the fall schedule and to pitch new projects. Executives in Los Angeles and Atlanta were visible on large screens hanging on the wall. CNN was only weeks from launching a slate of shows, and Zucker had a lot of decisions to make before he left for a vacation in East Hampton and then a tour of CNN’s Asia bureaus.

First up was a rundown of the fourth season of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. In the spring of 2012, Amy Entelis, CNN’s head of talent and development, had approached the celebrity chef about moving his popular No Reservations from the Travel Channel to CNN. Bourdain had reservations. “Our reaction was similar to what everyone else’s was. CNN?” Bourdain recalled. “This was very off-brand.” He sent DVDs to Entelis of three of his most outlandish episodes — one featured a fantasy sequence in which the television personality Samantha Brown drunkenly shoots him in the kneecap — expecting CNN to pass. Not only did CNN sign him, but Entelis and her team gave him more creative freedom than Bourdain says he had at the Travel Channel. Though Bourdain predated Zucker’s arrival, he, too, became a champion. “I thought Bourdain was the right strategy, and we quadrupled on the strategy,” he said.

The discussion moved to the weekly crime series The Hunt With John Walsh. Zucker had known Walsh, of America’s Most Wanted fame, since his time at Today. Bringing Walsh to CNN became a test of just how far Zucker would be able to stretch the network’s brand. “We’re a reality show,” Walsh told me. It’s a characterization Zucker disputes: “It’s a different type of storytelling.” The Hunt debuted on July 14 to the highest ratings for the premiere of a CNN original series and won its time slot. Two weeks into the show’s run, federal marshals and police tracked a Walsh target, Charles Mozdir, a 32-year-old alleged sex offender who had been on the run for two years, to a West Village head shop. In a shootout, officers shot Mozdir ten times, killing him. “What John Walsh did through this storytelling of this creep and his capture and death was impact journalism,” Zucker said.

Zucker became more critical as the conversation turned to This Is Life With Lisa Ling. The series features Ling, whom Zucker recruited from Oprah Winfrey’s network, conducting interviews with various eccentrics, from a gay rodeo cowboy to a traveling stripper.

“What episode are we leading with?” Zucker asked.

“Mormon pill poppers,” said a producer.

“What does this even mean?” Zucker said.

“There’s an epidemic of pill popping in Utah because they can’t drink,” the producer explained.

“Rick, have you seen it?” Zucker asked Rick Lewchuck, a marketing executive in Atlanta.

“We’ve addressed the honest concerns,” Lewchuck replied. (CNN ended up launching with an episode on “sugaring,” women courting rich older men.)

Zucker’s frustration mounted as he leafed through advertising concepts. “The research we got says you’ve got to be clearer about what the show is,” he said. He pointed at a sample. “This looks like Charlie’s ¬Angels.” He flipped to another. “She looks like a murder investigator.” ¬After a few minutes of debate, he approved a classy portrait of Ling with the show’s title in a clean white font. “We’re selling Lisa Ling,” Zucker told his team. “You can’t be too cute.”