On most nights safe-and-serious CNN finishes fourth in the cable news rankings. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images )
The article incorrectly implied that anchor Ali Velshi was dismissed by the network. Velshi left voluntarily for a position elsewhere. This version has been corrected.
For a few minutes the other night, the hot topic on CNN was . . . bacon. The panel on a new prime-time show called “(Get to) The Point” came out boldly in favor of it.
“I had a double order this morning at breakfast,” confessed Jason Taylor, the pro-football-player-turned-“Dancing With the Stars”-contestant-turned-TV-gabber. “But there’s a restaurant in Miami. . . . You know, they have a great bar. They don’t serve bar nuts. They have bacon.”
“Wow!” responded Margaret Hoover, a fellow panelist.
CNN says “(Get to) The Point,” a mixed-gender knockoff of “The View,” is an experimental program that was swiftly canceled after its four-night tryout last week. So it’s unwise to draw too many firm conclusions. Except for this one: This isn’t the old CNN, says new network chief Jeff Zucker.
The old CNN, which created and defined cable news, has been wheezing and sputtering for years. The old CNN was bypassed in sizzle (and audience ratings) by Fox News Channel and MSNBC long ago. On most nights, safe-and-serious CNN finishes fourth in the cable news rankings, behind even little HLN, a sister network that specializes in lurid trials and whose star is Nancy Grace, cable’s Cruella de Vil.
Hence, “(Get to) The Point,” which is part of the throw-it-against-the-wall strategy that Zucker has employed since arriving at CNN’s Manhattan newsroom in January.
Zucker, 48, has come into his new job like a man rummaging through the contents of a cluttered attic. He has hired, fired and reshuffled anchors and hosts (out: Soledad O’Brien), added new producers and pared CNN’s long list of talking heads (out: Mary Matalin, James Carville, Roland Martin, Bill Bennett). He has whipped a sports show onto the weekend schedule and added a newsy weekday afternoon program, hosted by ABC News defector Jake Tapper.
Coming soon: a food-and-travel program with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain on Sundays and a new morning program for weekdays. The latter will be co-anchored by another big-ticket hire from ABC, Chris Cuomo, and rising star Kate Bolduan (CNN evening host Erin Burnett declined the reassignment to mornings). The early hours are Zucker’s wheelhouse — he made his name as executive producer of NBC’s “Today” show in the 1990s — so his morning makeover will be a closely watched test of CNN’s direction.
These moves haven’t done much yet to goose the network’s woebegone ratings. They have, however, simultaneously invigorated and terrified its employees. Many of them have been used to doing things “the CNN way” — that is, thoughtfully, deliberately . . . and in a manner very likely to drive viewers to Bravo or TLC.
“He’s transformed the energy,” says one of CNN’s Washington journalists, among several who asked not to be named so as not to preempt the new boss. “Zucker,” he adds, “wasn’t brought in to tinker. He was brought in to blow up the place.”
The question pinging through the hallways in CNN’s news offices in New York, Washington and Atlanta is whether Zucker — whose last network gig was a calamity — can really fix the network’s problems.
Zucker has already begun tweaking CNN’s news coverage. In January, while other networks covered political stories, CNN aired Beyoncé’s post-inauguration, pre-Super Bowl news conference live. Much to the chagrin of some of CNN’s old guard, the network went wall to wall in February with the disabled Carnival Cruise ship as it limped back to port. CNN also gave ample airtime in early March to the death of a Florida man who was swallowed by a sinkhole. Stealing a bit of HLN’s mojo, it has sprinkled reports about the trial of accused boyfriend-killer Jodi Arias throughout its newscasts.
Some of the spirit of “(Get to) The Point” pervades CNN’s daily programming. Each weekday afternoon, a panel of young quipsters chews over topics big and small, but mostly small. One of the debates last week was about the merits of new, smaller airline toilets. A few minutes later, anchor Don Lemon, who hosted the gabby panel, segued uneasily into reporting about a possible North Korean missile attack.
Zucker wasn’t available to discuss the lighter, brighter (and perhaps dumber) CNN he seems to be molding; he has declined all media interviews since his arrival. CNN also prohibited any of its senior executives from speaking for the record. The network’s chief spokeswoman, Allison Gollust, initially offered to answer a reporter’s questions on an off-the-record basis; she later had no response to a list of questions.
The most charitable view, from inside and outside CNN, is that Zucker’s remodel is a work in progress.