If there had been big, breaking news in the United States the other night, CNN would have been faced with a huge talent challenge. Most of its famous on-air people were sipping drinks poolside in L.A.
I was there too, briefly, and I can report with confidence that a CNN party is kind of like a Globe and Mail party. Or any news organization party. A bunch of big-shot editors and reporters stand around by the bar, talking shop and creating an impenetrable gang.
For a time I gave up trying to get a drink. Couldn’t get past Wolf Blitzer and Piers Morgan deep in chat with cronies. Nearby, Candy Crowley was talking to a TV critic. Along came Newt Gingrich and his missus and, with that, there was a massive wall between me and access to Diet Sprite. Anderson Cooper was in the corner and Morgan Spurlock and Dr. Drew Pinsky were there, too. A DJ played Michael Jackson and Fleetwood Mac tunes while banging on a drum. A sort-of showbiz party with a peculiar vibe.
But there was a point to the party and the wee gloss of glam being put on CNN. The all-news channel is getting feisty about its image, reputation and performance. Tired of being tagged as a ratings laggard behind Fox News and fed up with being classified as boring because partisan political issues are argued with more vim and vigour on Fox and MSNBC, CNN’s saying it’s got both credibility and pep.
While there’s a hint of the codger assuming a youthful swagger, this is actually the work of CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker, who took over nearly a year ago. The former NBC boss is experimenting with on-air programming and formats. He revived the political debate show Crossfire and put Gingrich on it. He’s putting more newsmagazine material and documentaries (Death Row Stories, an eight-part series from Robert Redford and Alex Gibney, will start in March) on the channel and upping the help-the-consumer content. What he’s not doing is abandoning CNN’s middle-of-the road political coverage.
Speaking to TV critics here he did what CNN has rarely done – shot back at Fox News and sneered at the skeptics. He acknowledged his tinkering with the format (CNN has been rightly ridiculed for some of the tinkering, including use of the phrase, “Is it a good thing or a bad thing?” in relation to news stories), but Zucker said, “CNN is not and never will abandon our first and fundamental brand equity, which is news and breaking news.” Asked about comments by Fox News CEO Roger Ailes that CNN is “out of the news business,” Zucker said that “news coverage is the most important thing we do. We want to remain essential in news.”
But with those bland declarations, Zucker was merely clearing his throat. He continued, “In the cable-news arena, you have two partisan networks looking out for their viewers. I think CNN needs to look out for the rest of us.” He smiled as he described the Ailes comment as “silly” and then went for the jugular, saying, “We happen to be in the news business, as opposed to some other ‘fair and balanced’ networks.” When asked if he was just letting off steam, and was irked by Ailes, he interrupted the question to snap, “Fox News, yeah, the Republican Party run out of News Corp. headquarters masquerading as a cable channel.”
Fighting words. But what about the programming? Prime time is where Zucker wants change, and “more passion” on the air. He dismissed the rumour that he was going to offer Jay Leno a show when Leno’s Tonight Show contract with NBC runs out. “That’s not in the cards any time soon,” he said. He also said he’s looking to tweak Piers Morgan Live, but that Morgan – the target of much right-wing abuse for his gun-control advocacy – is staying with CNN, “maybe in a different role, I don’t know. I don’t want to presuppose anything.”
The poolside party was one element of Zucker’s plan to give CNN swagger. It was a, “See, we’re the stars of news business” statement. At the party I found myself in conversation with Jane Velez-Mitchell, a rising CNN star who anchors a current-affairs show on the sister channel Headline News, officially called HLN, and does regular commentary on the main network. One of the few openly gay news anchors, she says she’s interested in moving away from covering crime stories and health issues and bringing something different to the daily news conversation.
This became clear when we chatted about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. She wanted my take on Ford because she was prepping a program about addiction issues. In the course of things she said she saw Ford as a “regular guy” with booze and drug problems. I pointed out that he’s rich, comes from a wealthy family. At this, she paused and said it gave her an idea – a program about wealth and privilege and how we can mistake the privileged for being “regular folks.”
Thus, perhaps the poolside party was of some use to CNN. But picking up news themes from TV critics – is that a good thing or a bad thing? Let’s see how Zucker’s zaps to the CNN brand work out.
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