Thursday, November 29, 2012

Like a Boss

Yes, I know -- Jeff Zucker was just named president of CNN worldwide.

The thing is, there's no sense in my banging out anything new on this subject because I actually wrote about it a few months ago, when Zucker's name first came up as a possible replacement for the departing Jim Walton. It was then that I made all the points you'd probably expect, the ones that if you have even a cursory understanding of network television and news in particular you're probably making yourself right about now.

So with that in mind, I think the only thing left to do before reposting that column from this past June is to introduce you to the one person who not only thinks that Zucker's latest "fail upward" will be good for CNN, he thinks it's a stroke of pure Five Diamond brilliance that will align the stars and bring the favor of the gods down upon Atlanta. Because Zucker is, you know, a genius.

In his regular column today, long-time Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik calls the hiring of Zucker a "wise and winning" move right off the bat -- and then gets more and more detached from the reality you and I exist in as he goes along.

A few choice excerpts:

"Of all the major executive, talent and programming moves that CNN has made in the last few years, the expected announcement of Jeff Zucker as the president of CNN Worldwide looks like one of the best."

"Zucker's record, from his long and winning stint at NBC's Today, to the sound and classy syndicated production he built for Katie Couric, shows that he knows how to make money without shredding standards."

"Zucker is also steady, credible and tough. CNN needs all that right now in a president. You can bet Zucker, who is hardly press-shy, won't let the PR departments at other cable channels shape media reporters' perceptions of CNN as they do now without hitting back."

Okay, so was Zurawik a guest of honor at Zucker's kid's bar mitzvah or something? That little assessment of Zucker's abilities and history goes beyond glowing into the realm of hagiographically hallucinatory. I don't need to remind you of what really happened at NBC under Zucker's now infamous stewardship because I've done so many, many times and besides you can read about it anywhere.

A few choice details just for the hell of it: Zucker took NBC from #1 to a dismal #4 and made it a global punchline. He gave us Ben Silverman and Donald Trump. He lost NBC a billion dollars in ad revenue in one year. He was personally behind one of the most embarrassing prime-time clusterfucks in broadcast television history, that being the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien debacle. He was unceremoniously fired in the wake of the multi-million-dollar merger he almost singlehandedly scuttled. Four words: To Catch a Predator.

The one thing Zucker's good at, as Zurawik alluded to, is creating his own mythology through a relentless personal PR campaign to other outlets -- and it's served him very well. I'd love to believe that Zucker will do right by CNN and finally bring the network back to life. Unfortunately, there's just one problem: his proven record so far.

Adding: This ringing endorsement...

I rest my case.

"Welcome Back Zucker" (Originally Published, 6.12.12)

Here’s a little something just about everyone in the television business knows: Once you become a high-powered executive, it’s almost impossible to fuck yourself and your reputation so badly that you’ll never work again.

Let’s say you’re some poor mid-level schmuck, doing whatever it is you do right now for a living, and you almost single-handedly make, let’s say, some gargantuan mistake that turns your company into a worldwide laughingstock and threatens to crater an upcoming multi-million dollar merger that’s going to make it the most powerful organization of its kind in the world — there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be radioactive for about the next hundred or so years. Not in television, though — and not if you’re an executive.

Case in point: Jeff Zucker, the former boy wonder of NBC Universal whose breathtaking arrogance and bottomless reservoir of short-sighted quick fixes and dumb-ass gimmickry turned the once-mighty NBC into a perennial last-place loser and whose name became synonymous with epic failure. It was Zucker who was personally responsible for the now legendary clusterfuck that turned NBC’s prime time inside out, led to an affiliate rebellion and eventually culminated in the ugly public departure of Conan O’Brien, all in the name of keeping Jay Leno fat, happy and, most importantly, safely in place at the network. Zucker ultimately left NBC in disgrace, but the important thing to remember is that disgrace is a stench that washes off damn quickly in the amoral world of the television suit.

Zucker’s got name recognition. And he’s got a reputation for putting clever ways of bringing in revenue above actually putting decent programming on the air — and that’s really all anybody cares about anymore in TV. Which is why his name is apparently now being bandied about as a possible candidate for not one but two stratospheric television news positions. Turner President Phil Kent is reportedly considering Zucker as a replacement for CNN Worldwide CEO Jim Walton, whose contract is up in December; Walton’s renewal is on very shaky ground in the wake of an almost staggering drought of ratings, with CNN pulling in record low numbers for months now. Meanwhile, Tribune Co. might also be considering Zucker to help lead the company out of its own wasteland, one brought on by a 2008 Chapter 11 filing that it’s now trying to emerge from.

Actually, the Tribune job would at least make a minor amount of sense given that Zucker’s forte is conjuring short-lived financial success out of thin air through the implementation of all kinds of silly schemes, cheap on-air trickery and relentless cross-pollination. But when it comes to CNN, here’s the thing: The network is already making money. In fact — it’s still turning an impressive profit even as its ratings tank. CNN could easily not worry one bit about how many people are watching it because it’s feeding off plenty of healthy revenue streams besides the traditional ones cultivated by good ratings. Obviously, though, CNN has a reputation to uphold and being the number three cable news network doesn’t exactly jibe with how it’s been perceived in the past and how it would like to be perceived now and going forward — but bringing somebody like Zucker on board to try to bring in those ratings seems more than a little misguided.

Either way, it looks like we haven’t seen the last of Jeff Zucker. You could’ve predicted from the beginning that there would always be somebody willing to put his special brand of spoiled milk back in the refrigerator in the hope that it’d taste better later. That’s just how things work in corporate television.

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