Zucker will take the job in January, putting him in charge of the operation’s 23 news and information businesses worldwide, Time Warner said today in a statement. He will report to Turner Broadcasting System Chief Executive Officer Phil Kent.
The job offers a fresh start to Zucker after he failed to lift ratings while head of NBC Universal, now controlled by Comcast Corp. Zucker rose through the ranks of NBC after getting his start as a researcher on the “Today Show” in the 1980s.
“I spent the most rewarding years of my career as a journalist, and it’s where I look forward to spending many more,” Zucker said in today’s statement.
Time Warner is counting on new leadership to reverse a ratings slump at the network. CNN, once the cable-news leader, now has a third as many viewers as News Corp.’s Fox News. Current CNN President Jim Walton, who announced in July he would step down at the end of the year, said at the time the network needs “new thinking” in its leadership.
“Jeff will provide that,” Kent wrote in a memo to employees. “While he has enormous respect for our organization and brand, I expect that he also will challenge our thinking -- yours and mine -- in a very healthy and inclusive way.”
Zucker, 47, made his mark in the news business as the youngest-ever executive producer of the “Today Show” in the 1990s. By 2007, he ascended to the top job at NBC Universal, overseeing the broadcast network, the Universal Pictures film studio, theme parks and cable channels.
In that role, he struggled to develop prime-time programs that could recapture the success enjoyed by “Friends” and “Seinfeld” in the 1990s. His decision in 2009 to put comedian Jay Leno in prime time backfired by cutting the 11 p.m. audience for local news and sparking protests from NBC’s affiliate TV stations. Zucker was replaced as CEO when Comcast took over the business in 2011.
Since 2011, Zucker has been executive producer of “Katie,” the daytime talk show of Katie Couric, the former anchor of “CBS Evening News” and “Today Show.”
The CNN job gives Zucker a chance to prove himself again. Even so, his high-profile career in television may make him overqualified to run the network, said Todd Juenger, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York. CNN gets lower ratings than MSNBC, which once was a small part of the conglomerate that Zucker oversaw.
“How does a guy who used to call all the shots across the mighty empire of NBCU be satisfied running a network that is struggling to compete with MSNBC, which was hardly big enough to matter in his old role?” Juenger said in an interview. “Can Zucker really be happy?”
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