Jeff Zucker’s folly comes to an end as Discovery pulls the plug on CNN+

Imagine a newspaper that required you to be a paid subscriber to the print edition if you wanted to read the paper online, and that you had to pay an additional fee for that privilege. If you weren’t a print subscriber, you wouldn’t be able to read the paper on the website, even though you were paying for digital. The only online content you’d be able to access would be repurposed programs and lite features. Needless to say, no one would sign up for such a terrible service.

Well, that’s exactly what CNN+ is. Or was. The New York Times reports that the network’s incoming owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, has pulled the plug on the weeks-old service. I’m surprised. I thought this would drag on for at least a few months. But I guess the decision was made to close it immediately rather than wait for the inevitable.

Cord-cutting is real, and CNN — like all content providers dependent on cable — needs to find a way to respond. This wasn’t it. Nice going, Jeff Zucker. I’m sure Discovery isn’t going to give up on coming up with a post-cable strategy for CNN. Wiping the slate clean was necessary for that.

One positive development coming out of this fiasco is that the new owners are reportedly planning to slot an actual newscast at 9 p.m., the old Chris Cuomo hour, according to Sara Fischer of Axios. Perhaps the anchor will be Audie Cornish, lured away from NPR to be a key part of CNN+.

Five ideas to reinvent CNN after Zucker’s departure

Jeff Zucker. Photo (cc) 2013 by Fortune Live Media.

Previously published at GBH News.

Cable news is a disgrace, especially during prime time. From 8 to 11 p.m. every Monday through Friday, the three outlets offer nothing but opinionated talk shows, CNN and MSNBC from the left, Fox News from the conspiratorial far right. It is a wasted opportunity.

But now CNN, the original cable news station — the one whose middle name is “news” — has a chance to reinvent itself. Last week CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker resigned after company officials learned he was involved romantically with his second-in-command, executive vice president Allison Gollust, who remains at CNN, at least for now.

It seems likely that there’s more to it. By the end of last week, Tatiana Siegel was reporting in Rolling Stone that Zucker and Gollust may have been advising Andrew Cuomo at the same time that the then-New York governor was appearing on Chris Cuomo’s CNN show. More to come, no doubt.

But whatever the reason, now is the perfect time for CNN to try something new. What Zucker was doing certainly wasn’t working. The man who foisted Donald Trump upon the media and political world, first with “The Apprentice” and later with hours upon hours of free air time during the 2016 presidential campaign, presided over a collapse in the ratings as soon as Trump left the White House. So what’s next?

Over the weekend, I asked my followers on social media and got some great responses. CNN employs boatloads of first-rate journalists. Why not let them shine? You’re probably not going to see CNN or its incoming owner, the Discovery network, actually try any of these ideas. And I’ll admit that there’s a retro quality to some of them. My defense is that they hark back to a time when CNN was good. And so it could be again.

Let’s get after it, as Chris Cuomo liked to say.

1. Launch a prime-time newscast. Did you ever realize that there isn’t a single newscast on any of the three cable “news” channels? It’s a pretty incredible omission. An insider once told me that it wouldn’t work because people are immersed in news all day on their phones and their laptops, and they want to watch people talk about it once evening comes along. Well, I don’t buy it.

As recently as 20 years ago, CNN offered a nightly prime-time newscast anchored by Aaron Brown, and MSNBC had one helmed by Brian Williams. Granted, that was before social media, but there’s no reason it can’t work again. The network’s three nightly newscasts all have higher ratings than cable news. Why not go with a solid hour of national and international news on CNN, serious but with more reporting, fewer talking heads and higher production values than the excellent but low-budget “PBS NewsHour”?

Who would anchor the CNN nightly newscast? My choice would be Audie Cornish, who recently left NPR to join CNN+, the digital streaming service that is scheduled to be unveiled this spring. CNN+ may be the future (or not), but the cable channel is the present. Let’s face it: Cable news appeals to older viewers who have no intention of cutting the cord and going with a streaming service. Why not leverage that with something they might actually watch? I’d slot the newscast for 8 p.m.

2. Bring back Larry King. Well, OK, the mainstay of 9 p.m. is no longer available, having died a year ago at the age of 87. And though King had his quirky charms, CNN could certainly find a host who’s better informed and more engaged. I’d suggest Anderson Cooper, one of the smartest and most versatile people at the network. Who better to talk with newsmakers, entertainers, authors and the like?

And by “talk with,” I mean “have a conversation.” When CNN put King out to pasture, they replaced him with Piers Morgan, a noxious Brit who held down the post for a few years in the early 2010s. It didn’t work, and eventually CNN put Chris Cuomo in that time slot as the host of a not-very-good political talk show. An interview program hosted by Cooper would be an ideal replacement.

3. Embrace the world. After a newscast at 8 and an interview show at 9, how about an international report at 10? CNN first earned the respect of viewers with its coverage of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Even today, CNN International wins kudos for its quality and depth. Yet U.S. viewers rarely get to see any of that coverage.

Now, I realize that international news almost certainly would not be a ratings winner. But CNN’s numbers are already below water. Maybe Zucker’s replacements could figure out a way to slip past MSNBC, but are they really going to challenge Fox? Probably not. The alternative is to embrace quality in the hopes of attracting a prestige audience that will prove enticing to high-end advertisers. Capping the evening with an hour of well-reported international news is just the way to do that.

My first choice as anchor would be Christiane Amanpour, assuming her health would allow it. She’s got the history with CNN — she still holds the title of chief international anchor — and continues to be well liked by viewers.

4. Not so boldly into the future. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but CNN+ looks like a looming disaster. I simply can’t picture why anyone, even a cord-cutter, would pay for a streaming service so they can watch Chris Wallace.

Yet CNN is already sitting on a significant digital asset — CNN.com, the top-ranked news website. According to recent figures from Comscore, CNN.com and its apps attracted 143 million unique visitors a month in 2021, putting CNN Digital way ahead of The New York Times (89 million), FoxNews.com and NBCNews.com (about 87 million each) and The Washington Post (82 million).

The danger with CNN+ is that not only will it fail to sign up cable cord-cutters, but that it will harm CNN Digital as well.

CNN Digital isn’t just successful — it’s good, one of the best free national and international news sources available. I’d merge CNN+ into CNN Digital, offering all video programming free to users with a cable TV log-in (as is currently the case) while charging an extra fee to non-cable subscribers who want to watch video. The cable providers will go nuts, but they’re doomed in the long run anyway.

And keep the non-video news free for everyone.

5. Offer some specialized programming. This is a bit of a catch-all. My followers made a lot of good suggestions for shows that might appear weekly or occasionally. Several suggested a program rounding up local news from around the country — a tough sell, but possibly worth doing if it can be demonstrated how it’s broadly relevant. An investigative hour coproduced with the nonprofit news organization ProPublica. The return of “Crossfire” (sorry, but no).

I might want to turn the Friday edition of the Anderson Cooper interview show I’ve suggested into a political roundtable, edgier than PBS’s “Washington Week” but smarter than what’s currently on CNN. No shouting and no Trumpers allowed — although intelligent conservatives would certainly be welcome.

Several people weighed in with suggestions for changes in CNN’s tone and emphasis, which would also be welcome. For instance, Alex Howard, director of the Digital Democracy Project, called for the network to improve its culture, focus on hard news, original reporting and expert analysis, and examine ethics more closely when covering government and corporations.

Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark School of Journalism, concluded several ideas about how to improve CNN’s offering with this: “In short, throw the damned deck chairs overboard and ask: Why are we here? What value to we bring to society? Use it as an opportunity to start over.”

The opportunity to start over doesn’t come around very often. CNN’s executives now find themselves with a blank slate. Here’s hoping against hope that they make the best of it.

Drip, drip, drip

Then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo (cc) 2014 by Diana Robinson.

Tatiana Siegel reports in Rolling Stone that Jeff Zucker and Allison Gollust may have been advising Andrew Cuomo at the same time that Chris Cuomo was driving his own career into a ditch by doing more or less the same thing. She indirectly quotes a source familiar with the workings of an investigation into Chris Cuomo’s behavior:

The source says the investigation suggests Zucker and Gollust were advising the governor at the beginning of the Covid pandemic in ways not dissimilar to what led to Chris Cuomo’s dismissal. As Andrew sparred on a daily basis with then-President Trump over Covid messaging, the couple provided the governor with talking points on how to respond to the president’s criticisms of the New York crisis. They also booked the governor to appear on the network exclusively, which became a ratings boon for CNN, with Chris Cuomo doing the interviewing. Cuomo and Gollust’s conduct, too, would appear to mark an ethical breach for executives acting on behalf of an impartial news outlet.

The source does not appear to be claiming that Zucker and Gollust were advising Andrew Cuomo on how to handle the sexual-harassment allegations that eventually led to his resignation as governor; that came later. Still, the behavior described by the source is wildly inappropriate. Much more to come, no doubt.

Scandal aside, Zucker gave us Trump and presided over a ratings collapse at CNN

Jeff Zucker. Photo (cc) 2013 by Fortune Live Media.

Something doesn’t make sense about Jeff Zucker’s sudden departure from CNN. He and his paramour, CNN executive vice president Allison Gollust, are consenting adults, and they’re both divorced.

There was an aha! moment Wednesday when we learned that Gollust had previously worked as Andrew Cuomo’s communications director. But that turned out to be a brief stint a decade ago. Maybe leadership concluded that Zucker had put them in an untenable position with regard to Chris Cuomo’s legal case against CNN. Or maybe Chris has something else up his sleeve. I suspect we’re going to find out more.

Meanwhile, let’s look at the record. Zucker is widely seen as a successful chief executive of CNN, well-liked by the troops. But what exactly were his accomplishments? He rode a Trump-driven rise in the ratings, the same as everyone else; ratings have collapsed since the end of the Trump presidency. Zucker accomplished little journalistically, especially in prime time, which has devolved into three hours of liberal talk shows that are not as good as those on MSNBC. Anderson Cooper, a significant asset, is badly misused.

More than anything, though, Zucker is the man who morphed Donald Trump from a failed real-estate developer into a media star, first through “The Apprentice” and then by giving him hours and hours of free air time during the 2016 presidential campaign. It’s all Trump all the time for Zucker, whether he’s for him or against him. And that’s the oxygen upon which Trump thrives.

What’s next for CNN? Its digital-streaming service, CNN+, debuts soon, and unless you think the public has been drooling with anticipation at the prospect of paying for CNN Lite, it has all the hallmarks of a disaster in the making.

My advice is to try reporting the news — especially during the key 8-to-11 p.m. time slot. Sadly, I’m sure that will go unheeded.

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Questions remain after the fall of the House of Cuomo

I’ve heard three questions come up since CNN suspended, then fired, Chris Cuomo for his inappropriate involvement in his brother Andrew’s defense against charges that he’d sexually harassed and assaulted women. I don’t know the answers to any of them. But they’re worth framing as we think about the extraordinary events of the past week.

1. Why did it take so long for CNN to act? The original bad actor in all of this was CNN head Jeff Zucker, who allowed Chris to host Andrew on his show when Andrew, as governor of New York, was winning widespread praise for how he had handled the early stages of the COVID pandemic.

It may have struck many people at the time as a harmless diversion during a very dark period. You may recall that Chris himself contracted the virus. But it was unethical, and in the months to come we learned just how unethical. Remember, Andrew ended up being accused not just of groping women but of grossly mismanaging the pandemic as well.

Then the drip, drip, drip started, as we learned that Chris had advised his brother and taken part in meetings as the sexual-misconduct scandal became increasingly serious. Zucker may have worried that suspending or firing one of his stars would have only called attention to his own role, so he let it go.

The revelations that were reported last week, though, weren’t just more but were also different. They showed that Chris had abused his position by, for instance, trying to find out what stories other journalists were working on. This went way beyond anything Zucker could have reasonably foreseen, and thus may have given him the freedom he needed to do what he should have done earlier.

No doubt Zucker’s hand was strengthened further when Chris Cuomo was hit during the past few days with a sexual misconduct allegation of his own — his second.

2. What about Sean Hannity? I’ve heard a number of people ask why Chris Cuomo has to go when Fox News did nothing about Hannity’s close relationship with Donald Trump. To which I can only respond that Fox, notwithstanding good work by a few of its journalists, is not really a news operation. It’s a propaganda outlet whose stock in trade is lies and ginned-up culture-war stories about issues such as race and the evils of vaccinations.

CNN is not what it used to be, and I’m not a fan of its prime-time line-up of opinionated talk shows. But it’s good to see that management still cares enough about the network’s reputation that it’s not going to stand for a host who breaks all journalistic boundaries — even if he didn’t do much journalism on the air. To imagine that Fox News would take similar action is to believe that Fox and CNN are in the same business. They’re not.

And wouldn’t it be great if CNN ultimately decides to replace Cuomo’s 9 p.m. talk show with an actual newscast? I’m not holding my breath.

3. What about Jeffrey Toobin? You may recall that CNN suspended Toobin as its legal analyst after he was caught pleasuring himself during a Zoom meeting. Many observers were surprised when the network took him back eight months later.

I’m not sure what that was about except to note that the incident took place during a New Yorker staff meeting, where Toobin was a writer. The New Yorker fired Toobin and shows no signs of being willing to take him back. CNN may have figured that it would be unfair to banish Toobin permanently for something he did for another employer. Still, it’s hard to watch Toobin without going “ewww.” And I say that as someone who liked his work both at The New Yorker and on CNN.

Finally: What an extraordinary downfall for the House of Cuomo. I revered their father, Mario; long before 2020, though, I was aware of Andrew’s thuggish reputation as governor. Chris struck me as an amiable lightweight. Scandals like this have a human dimension that can’t be overlooked. Andrew and Chris got what they deserved — but I feel bad for their mother, Matilda, who, at 90, is still very much with us.

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Why Murdoch could prove to be the savior of CNN

Rupert Murdoch at the 2009 World Economic Forum.
Rupert Murdoch at the 2009 World Economic Forum

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Could Rupert Murdoch turn out to be the savior of CNN?

Not directly, of course. After all, his Fox News Channel is a blight upon the civic landscape — a right-wing propaganda machine whose elderly viewers are, according to a 2012 Fairleigh Dickinson study, even less well-informed than people who watch no news at all.

Nevertheless, I felt my pulse quickening last week when I learned that Murdoch is trying to add Time Warner to his international media empire. Among Time Warner’s holdings is CNN. And according to The New York Times, Murdoch would sell the once-great news organization in order to appease federal antitrust regulators.

(Murdoch’s acquisition would not affect Time magazine, a diminished but still valuable news outlet: Time Warner recently set Time adrift after stripping it of most of its assets.Time’s future is far from secure, but at least Rupe won’t have a chance to put Fox News chief Roger Ailes in charge of it.)

As you no doubt already know, CNN in recent years has fallen into the abyss. When I Googled up its increasingly ironic slogan, “The Most Trusted Name in News,” I was taken to a page at CNN.com dating back to 2003, complete with photos of former CNN hosts such as Aaron Brown, Judy Woodruff and Larry King, the seldom-seen Christiane Amanpour and others who evoke a better, more substantive era.

These days, unfortunately, CNN is known mainly for its endless coverage of the missing Malaysian jetliner and for a series of embarrassing screw-ups, such as its misreporting of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act in 2012 and its false report that a suspect had been arrested in the Boston Marathon bombing (to be fair, CNN was not alone on either mistake).

Then, too, there have been a series of mystifyingly bad hires, such as the talentless yipping Brit Piers Morgan to replace Larry King and the creepy Eliot Spitzer to cohost a talk show. Even solid choices like Jake Tapper seem to disappear once brought into the CNN fold. Of course, it’s hard not to disappear when your ratings are lower than those of Fox and MSNBC.

Is CNN worth saving? Absolutely. Its journalistic resources remain formidable. It’s still must-see TV when real news breaks, which certainly has been the case during the past week. Folks who are able to watch CNN International (I’m not among them) tell me it remains a good and serious news source. Anderson Cooper is among the more compelling figures in television news.

But domestically, and especially in prime time, CNN has utterly lost its way — starting at the top, with its self-congratulatory president, Jeff Zucker, who wants us to believe that everything is proceeding according to plan.

The time for a complete overhaul is long overdue. If Rupert Murdoch can help usher CNN into the hands of a new owner that might actually know what to do with it, then bring it on.

Photo (cc) by the World Economic Forum and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.