Jeff Zucker could be wise and winning choice to lead CNN

UPDATE (11 a.m. Nov. 29): Jeff Zucker named head of CNN

Of all the major executive, talent and programming moves that CNN has made in the last few years, the expected announcement of Jeff Zucker as the president of CNN Worldwide looks like one of the best.

Of course, when you're comparing that to, say, giving the 8 p.m. hour each night to Eliot Spitzer, that might not be such high praise.

Seriously, this is a decision that truly matters -- not just for CNN and Time Warner, but for the future of TV journalism.

I'm not going to get cosmic about it, but CNN remains our last best hope for journalism on cable TV. And by that, I mean the kind of reporting and analysis that serves democracy by providing viewers and citizens with sound information that they can trust and use to make decisions about their lives.

And millions of viewers know that, which is why they still tune to CNN in moments of crisis, natural disasters or events of national importance like the November elections.

Zucker's record, from his long and winning stint at NBC's Today, to the sound and classy syndicated production he built for Katie Couric, shows that he knows how to make money without shredding standards.

In these transformative times, of course, major changes will have to be made in an institution essentially built for a 1980s media landscape. But Zucker is not a run-and-gun executive.

That's the last thing CNN needs -- somebody who is going to come in and shake things up just to shake things up. In fact, one of Zucker's biggest failures, the move of Jay Leno to prime time when he was running NBC, has probably taught him the wisdom of respecting viewer expectations even as he tries to reshape the medium for today's landscape.

As I have been saying for years, CNN is in much better shape than many in the press understand. It is on its way to a year of record profits for a reason: Even though it finishes behind the ideologically-oriented cable channels of MSNBC and Fox News in U.S. prime time, it has a different business model -- one built around its superb international brand and distribution.

"CNN is not in as bad of a state as people think it is," Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research, told Ad Age this week. "Ratings are just one barometer. Glenn Beck could have the highest ratings when he was on Fox News, but he couldn't get advertisers. CNN is still a well-regarded advertising property."

Great international coverage has been good business for CNN. Thanks to his history with NBC News, Zucker understands that model in a way someone who comes exclusively from the entertainment side would not. And such a programmer would probably have a hard time resisting quick cuts in staffing abroad. MSNBC and Fox News spend next to nothing on international coverage compared to CNN, and we are a more ignorant nation for it.

Zucker is also steady, credible and tough. CNN needs all that right now in a president.  You can bet Zucker , who is hardly press-shy, won't let the PR departments at other cable channels shape media reporters' perceptions of CNN as they do now without hitting back. Here's a guy who can stand up to Roger Ailes -- and do it with some professional dignity as he works to regain the respect CNN deserves for its journalism.


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