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Jeff Zucker Is Just What CNN Needs: A Theatrical Tyrant

What’s an old-timey media brand being murdered by the Zeitgeist to do? There’s the Washington Post route: Hire a series of quietly competent executives to manage the inevitable decline, while investing in more booming sectors, like hospice care. Or you can go for the flash and the buzz, the zazz and the bling, by bringing on the former wunderkind who ran into a rough patch but seems destined for a comeback. You can go for Jeff Zucker.

CNN has chosen door number two. News of its almost-maybe-not-yet hiring of Zucker, the phenom who made the “Today” show a hit before flaming out at NBC, leaked periodically over the last four months before breaking officially this week. Zucker beat out a pool of zombies and also-rans, none of whom ever seemed to be in serious contention. The job was his from the moment Zucker – sorry, “sources close to Zucker” – threw his name in the ring.

This is wonderful news for everyone. In the best-case scenario, Zucker’s rule means a new life for sad, soft CNN. Any life would do. The network has been in a downward spiral for more than a decade. This spring saw CNN’s lowest ratings in 21 years, and this summer, the departure of CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton, whom Zucker will replace. On Wednesday, while declining to comment on the latest Zucker rumors (before they became official), the network bragged that this November’s ratings were up almost 60 percent from last November, when, you may recall, there was not a presidential election.

The worst insults leveled at Zucker over the years sound like ringing endorsements for the CNN job. He succeeded by “thinking brilliantly in three- to six-minute increments and coming up with stunt programming,” wrote Mark Harris in a New York Magazine profile. He is a “case study in the most destructive media executive ever to exist,” a “honcho” once told Maureen Dowd.  He is a “failure virtuoso” and a “network Napoleon.” Terrific! CNN could use a theatrical tyrant who’s adept at handling failure, and short-form news programing mixed with stunts sounds like a better plan than the network has had in years.

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Sources close to Zucker haven’t yet revealed any specifics for what he would do in his new role. But it seems clear that the current cable news map—where Fox is on the right, MSNBC is on the left and CNN is in the middle of nowhere—will not stand. Everyone hates the neutral milquetoast version of CNN, and no one can handle any more Wolf Blitzer. In its quest for nonpartisan infotainment, the network has consistently mishandled and debased its in-house talent, making them broadcast from diners, talk to holograms, and share a stage with Eliot Spitzer. After all the pratfalls one might wonder if it’s even possible to make compelling TV news without a party affiliation. Can you, in the terrible phrasing of NYU’s Jay Rosen, “declare jihad on the talking points and make that your identity”? Or will Zucker’s CNN just pick a side – presumably the left, though the right would be much more interesting – and run with it?

Zucker, a freedom fighter from the old school (Harvard), got his big break at age 26, when he began transforming the “Today” show into the powerhouse it only recently ceased to be. He drew controversy as he climbed the ranks at NBC, most notably for overseeing the collapse of the network’s primetime line-up and fumbling the Leno succession. In a charitable version of the story, Zucker was promoted out of his skill set, which has always been producing the news. The CNN job is smaller than his last big gig, but it returns Zucker to this core competency. Zucker would not just oversee CNN, whose primetime ratings barely affect the network’s bottom line, but also the rest of the empire, including lucrative web and international properties, which brings in $600 million in profit a year. He would have a chance to fire people brutally, via the press, one of his favorite pastimes, and also to make big hires that would enrage or delight his competitors. One tantalizing prospect: Fox News star Megyn Kelly’s contract is coming up.

These are just some of the ancillary benefits of a restored Jeff Zucker. His new role could mean the revival of a glorious feud with the personalities of Fox News, with whom Zucker used to spar bitterly when he ran NBC. It would bring one more giant personality to Jeff Bewkes’ stable of titans at Time Warner. And best of all, it would raise the magnificent possibility of an ascendant Katie Couric, whose actually decent syndicated show Zucker currently produces, and who could perhaps be lured to CNN once her contract is up next year.

“American Morning with Couric and Kelly”: Now that is a show I would watch.