CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker insisted that the U.S. cable network would remain committed to its core news service as it increasingly explores original docs and series, using his opening keynote at the Realscreen Summit to assure delegates that “we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Speaking this morning (January 27) at the Washington Hilton, in conversation with CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter, Zucker said that the perception that CNN was cutting back on its news coverage to program docs such as Blackfish and Pandora’s Promise, and series such as Inside Man and Parts Unknown, was an inaccurate one.
In the year since he took charge of the news organization, “we have tried to introduce a new version of CNN which is beyond what we do incredibly well: news and breaking news,” he said, adding that most of the docs and original series were coming “at the cost of repeat newscasts,” and were not elbowing live news coverage out of the way.
“When there’s a shooting in a mall in Maryland over the weekend, CNN will be there.”
Giving an example, he pointed to the fact that the network cancelled a planned screening of a film so that it could cover the death of former South African leader Nelson Mandela, pushing the film’s planned premiere back to the following Sunday night. When such breaking news scenarios occur, he said, “it’s not even a close call.”
Zucker also defended the ability of CNN’s original series and docs to inform as much as news coverage. Nobody was tackling the debate around nuclear power the way CNN was doing by programming Pandora’s Promise, he said, while also commenting on the insight he gained from watching an episode of Parts Unknown in which host Anthony Bourdain traveled to Jerusalem.
“We reported from Israel all the time. But I learned more from that episode about Israel… than I do from our news coverage coming out of there,” he said. “And that’s not to belittle our news coverage, but it’s a different type of storytelling.”
Elsewhere at the session, Zucker discussed the balance between hard news and more celebrity focused items. Asked by one delegate for his opinion on CNN’s coverage of Justin Bieber’s recent arrest, Zucker said: “I’m incredibly comfortable with the way that CNN covered the Justin Bieber story. The Bieber coverage was never wall-to-wall… I don’t think CNN had it out of proportion in any way.”
He also discussed the long-persisting rumor that talk show host – and former NBC colleague – Jay Leno might be moving to CNN after he bids farewell to the Peacock’s Tonight Show next week. Given Zucker’s history at NBC, “anyone whose contract comes up [at NBC] is going to be ‘coming to CNN,’” he noted with a sigh.
“Would we ever consider Jay? I would always consider great talent. But it’s just not in the cards at the moment.”