After the bosses at Time Warner installed Jeff Zucker as president of the 23 news and information brands that constitute CNN Worldwide, the press (Ad Age, Marketwatch, Politico, Guardian, New York Times, et al.) speculated on which strategies he might employ to return the network to ratings and cultural primacy, positions it lost long ago to Fox News Channel and more recently to MSNBC.
As the auteur behind the Today show’s return in the 1990s to No. 1 in the ratings, Zucker knows all about network comebacks. As the former president and CEO of NBC Universal, who was pushed out in 2010 as Comcast purchased controlling interest in the operation, Zucker craves a personal comeback. Although he only took over a month ago, his first moves as CNN’s leader indicate a plan that plays to the network’s existing strengths and the competition’s inherent weaknesses.
CNN’s decline began in 1996 when Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch started Fox News Channel, acting on their hunch that conservative consumers of television news and talk were woefully underserved and would respond to a network that served as the Republican Party’s light infantry. MSNBC also arrived that year, but it didn’t make its mark in the cable news and talk racket until midway through the past decade, after positioning itself as the liberal mirror image of Fox. For all the talk of decline, CNN has remained hugely profitable, estimated to be making $600 million in operating profit in 2012, second only to Fox. So it’s not as though Zucker had been called on to rescue a failing enterprise.
Fox and MSNBC’s aggressive courting of right- and left-wing audiences has left many to judge CNN as centrist by default. MSNBC just renewed its lease on liberal-land by signing longtime Obama aide David Axelrod and former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs as political “commentators.” Fox has made a similar move, rotating in Scott Brown, the former senator from Massachusetts, and Herman Cain and rotating out Sarah Palin and Dick Morris.
With the exception of Glenn Beck’s short tenure as the host of a conservative show on CNN’s sister network, HLN, CNN has generally packaged partisanship in offsetting pairs — Tom Braden versus Pat Buchanan; Michael Kinsley versus Robert Novak; Eliot Spitzer versus Kathleen Parker, and so on. But calling CNN centrist because it has conducted a 30-year-long balancing act accords the network a more distinct definition than it deserves. To paraphrase George W.S. Trow, CNN has long possessed the character of no character.