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The Zucker Tradition Continues at CNN


First there was the news that may have come as a surprise to most reasonable people, but which honestly was all-but-assured to those who understand how the corporate world works: the hiring of Jeff Zucker as the new head of CNN Worldwide. Sure, pretty much everyone with a pair of eyes knew that Zucker had almost singlehandedly ruined NBC and by all accounts should've been radioactive for the next century or so, yet anybody experienced in dealing with modern American corporatism knows that there's a mob-style "blood in, blood out" thing that happens at the upper echelons of power and once you've been accepted into the club, with a few exceptions, you're there to stay. Zucker has name-recognition and an adeptness at personal PR that borders on sorcery when you consider everything he manages to get people to conveniently forget about him, so the thoroughly offensive decision to give him another shot at running a television network was a punch telegraphed from a mile away.

Now, in the wake of that decision, of course, comes a series of thunderous declarations by Zucker meant to let everyone know that he's ready and willing to start putting his mark on CNN. A couple of weeks back, in his initial address to the troops from, I'd imagine, the balcony of Casa Rosada, Zucker offered up a new mission statement that should've sent chills down the back of anybody who thinks CNN can and should be the best news network on television.

"I think our competition today is anybody that competes for eyeballs and attention and produces non-fiction programming. News is about more than politics and war, we need to broaden that definition of what news is, while maintaining the standards of CNN’s journalistic excellence."

In case Zuck's not making it clear enough, allow me to translate. Basically what he's saying, or at least what I'm afraid he's saying, is that he sees outlets like TLC, E!, Bravo and the Food Network as direct competition to CNN, given that they produce "non-fiction" -- in other words, reality -- programming. Zucker, as master of the gimmicky quick-fix, wouldn't see a thing wrong with the publicity generated by turning CNN into a thoroughly branded reality-based network, one where the whole "journalistic excellence" thing, as it did in his statement, comes last. If you have visions of Honey Boo Boo guest co-hosting the new Get It Up, America! weekend morning show on CNN, I honestly don't think they're that far off from what may actually happen.

Speaking of mornings, if there's one one thing Jeff Zucker has proven himself to be a genius at -- provided you believe the comically hagiographic, largely self-generated Zucker mythology the media press seems to revel in dispensing -- it's morning television. Yes, Zucker deserves credit for his successful run as executive producer of the Today show, but it's worth pointing out that he wound up setting in motion the machinery that would eventually be the show's undoing. He was big on fluff, big on "event programming" and big on style over substance, all of which had a limited shelf life built into its DNA. Now Zucker is letting information leak which would seem to indicate that he's planning to make some major changes to CNN mornings.

According to one report, Zucker is looking at the comely but insufferable Erin Burnett as a possible morning show host, paired with a male anchor to be named later. It's a pretty standard dynamic, one that shows almost no vision, but if his hope is to create a Today show-style goof-fest then that's certainly one way to do it. Soledad O'Brien currently hosts part of CNN's morning lineup and she's drawn raves lately for her tough, take-no-shit interview style; she used to work with Zucker years ago and has sung his praises recently but if this report is true, there's a strong possibility she'd be pushed aside in favor of Burnett, which is a journalistic travesty.

Either way, the bottom line is that Zucker's back making it clear that he'll be doing what he spent a good portion of his CEO tenure doing at, or to, NBC: screwing it up. He imploded in such spectacular fashion during his last go-round that it still seems incomprehensible anyone would give him another bite at the apple, but again, this is corporate television we're talking about. As everybody knows, while it defies the laws of occupational physics that govern the rest of us, when you're a big corporate guy at the top, there's nowhere to fail but upward.

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