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CNN Goes Out on a Limb with Jeff Zucker

The cable network's new boss has a sketchy record at best

It became official this morning that Jeff Zucker is taking over as president of CNN Worldwide, succeeding Jim Walton. If Zucker can do to CNN what he did for NBC, the Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) all-news channel is in big trouble.

Though Zucker first gained attention as the wunderkind producer of the Today show, he had plenty of flops, so many of which that Jeff Bercovici while at DailyFinance spoke of the executive’s “reign of error” at the Peacock Network. Other unflattering nicknames include “Teflon Jeff.” NBC was also dubbed “Nothing But Crap.”

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Writing on, veteran entertainment journalist Nicki Finke described Zucker as a “thin-skinned humorless bully of a boss which the journalism and showbiz communities have come to know and dislike and ridicule.”

It’s easy to understand why he was shown the door by Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA).

For one thing, Zucker was cheap. After Friends and ER went off, he decided that margins were more important than quality. Under his watch, NBC slipped from first place to fourth, and viewers tuned out its schlocky reality shows. The network has only recently began to recover, thanks to hits such as The Voice.

It was Zucker who came up with NBC’s harebrained late-night strategy in 2010 to move Tonight Show host Jay Leno to prime time and replace him with Conan O’Brien — only to reverse course a few months later and give the square-jawed comic his old show back after his new one proved to be a ratings bomb.

NBC wound up pushing the popular and likable O’Brien aside, and it endured some of the most negative publicity the network’s history. The fiasco reportedly cost NBC $200 million.

Zucker was an enthusiastic champion of the XFL, wrestling impresario Vince McMahon’s ersatz professional football league. In February 2001, one of the games ran late on a Saturday night, which resulted in Saturday Night Live going on 45 minutes later than scheduled and turned into a ratings disaster. SNL Executive Producer Lorne Michaels was understandably livid because the show’s guest host was Jennifer Lopez, who at the time was one of the hottest stars around.

The XFL folded after one season.

These days, Zucker has reunited with his old Today show pal Katie Couric, who’s trying her hand at an afternoon talk show after a disastrous turn as the anchor of the CBS Evening News. Though Katie started off strong in the ratings, it’s now floundering, causing yet more grumbling about Zucker.

Zucker is no slouch when it comes to public relations, which may be the reason for the heightened frenzy of media interest in his appointment. This leads to the question of why Time Warner even considered Zucker for such an important job in the first place. David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun, wrote that Zucker knows “how to make money without shredding standards.” He wasn’t being sarcastic or ironic. Moreover, Zurawik noted that the Leno fiasco taught Zucker about “respecting viewer expectations even as he tries to reshape the medium for today’s landscape.”

The New York Times, which broke the story about Zucker’s move to CNN, notes that the exec did score some success in cable, which may explain why Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes is counting on him.

That’s true to a point. CNBC continues to dominate the market for business news, though it’s a big fish in a very small pond, and CNBC continues to struggle to attract viewers in prime time. As for MSNBC, as I recently reported, the liberal news channel may have gained viewers during the presidential campaign, but it remains far less profitable than ratings leader Fox News Channel.

CNN’s new boss faces two tough challenges. First, he must carve out an identity for the network that’s distinct from liberal MSNBC and conservative Fox. That’s not going to be easy. Though people often claim that they want “just the facts,” if that were true, CNN would be the ratings leader. It and other cable news channels also need to get viewers to tune in when there isn’t a war or calamitous natural disaster. Good luck with all that, Jeff.

As of this writing, Jonathan Berr didn’t own any securities mentioned here. Follow him on Twitter @jdberr

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