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HARPER: CNN still a ratings loser after a year under Jeff Zucker

- - Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Jeff Zucker, who was brought in last January to shake up CNN, hasn't accomplished much since his arrival, but he promises 2014 will be different.

That's a promise he had better keep since his first year at the helm of CNN Worldwide drew the ire of media critics and Comedy Central host Jon Stewart.

Mr. Zucker, who likes to remind people his name rhymes with "hooker," saw his reporting team make a major blunder during the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings when CNN announced that a suspect had been taken into custody, several days before that happened.

As David Carr of The New York Times put it at the time, "Mr. Zucker can hire all the talent he wants, broaden the scope of their coverage and freshen the look of the joint, but if the network continues to whiff on the big stories, all of that will be for naught."

Mr. Zucker, whose only bona fide television success occurred in the 1990s as executive producer of NBC's "Today," did see CNN overtake MSNBC for second place in the overall ratings throughout the day, but CNN's prime-time lineup sank to its lowest level in 20 years, finishing behind Fox and MSNBC.

Fox News, at 1.1 million viewers, drew roughly the same number of people as both networks combined, according to Nielsen Media.

CNN revamped its morning show in June. That program, "New Day," features Chris Cuomo and Kate Boulduan and has shown some modest success in ratings.

Perhaps more important in New York media circles, Mr. Stewart skewered the hosts in a hilarious takedown on "The Daily Show" for the team moving back and forth from a news desk to a comfy couch. Mr. Cuomo once described the movement as "a couchable conversation," including a walk to talk about a woman who lost her legs completing an Ironman competition.

The prime-time schedule remained the most serious problem for CNN. At 8 p.m., Anderson Cooper, who recently signed a new contract, had some success, while Piers Morgan's interview program at 9 p.m. remained relatively static.

A former newspaperman from Britain and television judge on "America's Got Talent," Mr. Morgan doesn't seem to really understand the U.S. His persistent stance favoring expanded gun control infuriated hundreds of thousands of people who launched a petition to have him deported.

At 10 p.m., CNN seems to have settled for the moment on another dose of Mr. Cooper with modest success.

As Politico's Dylan Byers put it: "[Mr.] Zucker needs to radically shake up prime time. One year after taking the helm, he's only hinted at forthcoming changes. Those need to happen sooner rather than later."

So what resolutions has Mr. Zucker made for 2014? The CNN chief said he would like to attract people other than news junkies to the network.

"The entire cable-news audience has been stagnant," Mr. Zucker told Ad Age this week. "That's why we need to fish in other ponds."

Those ponds include an estimated 10 documentaries for the upcoming year, along the lines of "Blackfish," about killer whales, which drew 1.4 million viewers in October, and programs similar to CNN's popular series "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown," a food and travel show featuring the American chef.

HLN, formerly known as Headline News and also part of Mr. Zucker's portfolio, may undergo changes this year, including the possibility that Nancy Grace, the unctuous face of the network, may be on her way out. In my view, HLN would be far more palatable if Mr. Zucker showed Ms. Grace the door.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and "20/20." He can be contacted at charper@washingtontimes.com. Twitter: @charper51.