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The future of CNN: News you can use and forget?

The mind, it is boggled.

In the TV racket, that's the gist of things. And it's all about the news that Jeff Zucker has been appointed as president of CNN Worldwide. Zucker has history, you see. His TV career began in 1998, when he was a field producer for NBC's morning show, Today. Three years later, at age 26, he was the show's executive producer and turned Today into the most-watched morning show in the U.S. market. During the 1990s, it was a ratings monster in the mornings. Think Canada AM on a sugar high, and you've got the picture of Today's glory days.

In 2000, he was appointed to run NBC's entertainment division, which put him in charge of prime-time. NBC continued to make a lot of money over the next few years, but those were not glory days: Remember the "super-sized" sitcoms, the end of Friends, the arrival of Donald Trump's The Apprentice, Fear Factor, the disaster of the Friends spin-off Joey, the disaster of Conan O'Brien taking over The Tonight Show, the disaster of Jay Leno's nightly comedy show and eventual return to The Tonight Show. Zucker kept acquiring bigger and bigger titles at NBC as the network fell from first to fourth in viewers among the U.S. networks.

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For years, Zucker was the face of NBC for TV critics surveying network wares twice a year in Los Angeles. In person, Zucker looks like a character actor who makes his living playing the square guy on TV sitcoms. Short, stocky, bullet-headed and big-jawed, he'd make a perfect office manager or nerdy-boss character, the kind of guy who is the butt of jokes. The only intrigue about the character would be the whereabouts of his sense of humour. At NBC presentations, it was difficult to tell when he was joking, just as it was difficult to tell when some of his NBC sitcoms were meant to be funny, which may have been some kind of weird trickle-down effect.

Me, I remember being present when Zucker announced that Dateline, NBC's news magazine, was going to do an hour-long special on Michael Jackson's face. I thought he was kidding. Zucker chuckled about the project and described it as "ridiculous but fascinating" and predicted that the show would get lots of attention, while pointing out that a recent Dateline special about Iraq had garnered no coverage and fewer viewers than expected.

Now he's off to CNN. Hence, the mind being boggled. In an interview with The New York Times, Zucker said, "CNN has to find the right programming that exists in between the 25 nights a year when it is most relevant. Beyond the fact that we are committed to news and journalism, everything else is open for discussion." The mind, it boggles more.

Listen, anyone who relies on CNN for news and information better brace themselves. The Zucker touch, as seen at Today and at NBC Entertainment, is lethal. Light and fluffy abounds. The elevation of the weather report, cooking demonstrations, the news anchors becoming lifestyle personalities who josh about the kids, cooking and relationships. Katie Couric was turned into a mega-star on Today mainly because the show peddled her warmth and perky smile.

Already there is talk in the TV racket that Couric will be coming to CNN to reunite with Zucker, a guy who served as a producer on her syndicated daytime chat show.

Imagine the future of CNN under Zucker. Wolf Blitzer's barbecue tips. (He seems like a barbecue guy, right?) Other days, Wolf Blizter talks about his childhood pets. Anderson Cooper's style tips. Ali Velshi's healthy eating tips. Piers Morgan talks gardening and vacation destinations. News you can use. And forget. Listen, like the man said, CNN has to do something because it's only relevant about 25 times a year.

CNN has long struggled in the all-news ratings. It can sometimes be in third place behind the bombast of Fox News and the almost as bombastic MSNBC News. But it has integrity because it has declined to be either partisan or lightweight. Those days are probably over. Here come Zucker days.

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Airing Tonight

Tiny Plastic Men (SuperChannel, 8 p.m.) is a new Canadian sketch comedy series. It alleges to be about "a group of misfits who survive the boredom of their toy and game-testing jobs at the Gottfried Brothers toy company by using a myriad of distractions, both fantasy and reality-based." From what I've seen, it is so deeply rooted in nerd culture as to be incomprehensible to others. Maybe the core audience finds it funny.

The Late Show with David Letterman(CBS, 11:35 p.m.) has an appearance by Led Zeppelin. Seriously. Led Zep.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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