LOS ANGELES – Minutes before Jeff Zucker gave his first major news conference as president of CNN, his publicity team rolled a promotional video showing the news network’s biggest personalities in heated exchanges with politicians and other public figures.
It could be tagged as confrontational TV. CNN’s president has another term for it.
“What’s been missing from CNN is a little bit of passion,” Zucker said afterward. “That doesn’t mean you have to be politically partisan, but you can bring the desire to stand up for everybody.”
The notched-up tone is one of the most prominent changes since the former NBC chief took over a year ago. Leading the charge is the return of “Crossfire” and the hiring of a new morning co-host, Chris Cuomo, whose combative interviews with Sen. Ted Cruz and Dennis Rodman went viral.
Cuomo compares his network to a football referee, keeping both the left and right in check by challenging positions and policy.
“My job is to take your ideas and test it, to fight for the good ones that should be implemented and to shout down the bad ones,” Cuomo said. “I believe that’s my job. If you say that’s advocacy journalism, I’m comfortable with that.”
Of course, there’s a thin line between aggressive journalism and shouting matches, the kind that often hijack highly rated shows on MSNBC and Fox News. No one understands that better than CNN’s lead anchor, Anderson Cooper, who recently renewed his contract for four more years.
“Heat gets eyeballs, gets attention and winds up on blog posts,” Cooper said. “But I think people want good, smart discussions. You can have passion without having phony outrage, which I think there’s far too much of on other networks.”
While CNN has toughened up in spots, it’s shown a softer touch in others. The network is more inclined to shift away from breaking news to showcase documentaries such as “Blackfish” and its new travel show “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” which ranks as the top cable-news series on weekends among viewers age 25 to 54.
That type of programming will increase in 2014 with eight new series, including “Death Row Stories,” narrated by Susan Sarandon, and “The Sixties,” produced by Tom Hanks’ company. There’s even talk of hiring Jay Leno, a rumor that Zucker dampened somewhat by stating that late-night programming is not a current priority.
“There are people who think CNN has to be serious all the time. I don’t like people like that,” said prime-time chat host Piers Morgan, whose history includes judging “America’s Got Talent” and editing a British tabloid. “Jeff is a very smart guy who likes having fun, who likes having a glass of Champagne as well as having a good understanding of the news. There’s room for all this stuff.”
The sugar-and-spice strategy has produced mixed results. CNN’s ratings in 2013 were flat from the year before, while MSNBC and Fox suffered erosion. A year ago, the morning show “New Day” trailed MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” by 80,000 viewers. Today, the gap is 30,000.
At the same time, CNN turned in a 20-year low in prime time with an average of 568,000 viewers. While “Crossfire” outpaces the daily average of other CNN programs, it has not come anywhere close to nabbing the kind of attention it did in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I’m more impatient than everybody,” said Zucker, who rocketed to fame as the producer of NBC’s “Today” when it took over as TV’s top morning show. “It took two years before “Today” was No. 1. You’ve got to have patience. It takes time.”
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