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Jeff Zucker's Rise to CNN
February 11, 2021  | By Mike Hughes  | 5 comments

Jeff Zucker is following a plan embraced by politicians and poker players: Quit while you're ahead.

Zucker announced last week that this would be his final year as president of CNN. Earlier, he soared as the producer of Today, crashed as president of NBC, then bounced back at CNN – which, as it happens, launches a couple of first-rate documentary series Sunday (Feb. 14).

And both extremes – the CNN highs, the NBC lows – revolved around Donald Trump. Many things do.

At NBC, Zucker was instantly enamored with Trump's Apprentice. It was a quick success, but the network soon went overboard with such shows and no longer seemed able to create a scripted hit.

And at CNN? Well, let's just say the Trump presidency paid off well for them.

The trade paper Variety eyed primetime Nielsen ratings for most of 2020, comparing them to 2019. Of the top 50 networks, 36 were down – a dozen by 20 percent or more. One had no change, and 13 were up.

Most of the increases were small – but not for news: MSNBC was up 23 percent, Fox News 45 percent, and CNN 84 percent.

That's partly the Trump factor, stirring news interest.

After the big-four broadcast networks, the three primetime leaders are Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. Indeed, CNN's ratings are double those of A&E, Bravo, or the CW, triple AMC or FX, quadruple MTV or Syfy.

Trump has been good for news, and Zucker has been great for CNN. Let's take a look back.

When TV critics first met Zucker, he seemed appealing.

This was 1992 when one of the Murphy Brown characters was Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) – a young producer, small, and nicely nerdy. Zucker seemed like the real-life version.

At 26, he was taking over Today, a show that had begun 13 years before he was born. He was a true tele-geek; as a kid, he said, he had been very excited by a contest to come up with new call letters for a Miami station.

Before Zucker took over Today, ABC's Good Morning America had taken the morning-show ratings lead – then widened it during a clumsy NBC stretch that saw Jane Pauley leaving, replaced (briefly) by Deborah Norville.

Under Zucker, the show became more flexible, less constrained by rigid segments. It added outdoor concerts and Matt Lauer. By 1995, it was No. 1 where it stayed every week, for 16 years.

Zucker became president of NBC Entertainment in 2000, continuing his presidential history. In high school, he was class president for three straight years; at Harvard, he was president of the newspaper.

During his third year at NBC, producer Mark Burnett and Trump pitched The Apprentice. Zucker told reporters his reaction was instant: He wouldn't let them leave the building without closing the deal.

The show scored, finishing No. 5 for the season. But it was No. 15 the next year, then fell out of the top 30.

Meanwhile, Zucker kept trying more reality (Fear Factor, The Biggest Loser, a second Apprentice with Martha Stewart). He broke up his "must-see" Thursday to insert Apprentice
NBC lost the knack for scripted hits. In 2001-2, the top-20 included 11 such shows from NBC; in 2006-7, it had no scripted NBC shows.

Worse was the bungling of Tonight. Zucker maneuvered to have Conan O'Brien move up to the 11:35 spot, with Jay Leno getting a 10 p.m. slot each weekday. In 2010, both shows failed, in what the Los Angeles Times called "one of the biggest debacles in television history." Zucker was fired.

He briefly produced Katie Couric's talk show, then took over CNN in 2013, finding success.

Yes, there were times of obsession – first about a missing Malaysian airliner in 2014, then about Trump in 2015-16. But CNN found its mark, propelled by intense coverage of politics (much of it probing Trump) and COVID. And it added a bonus – a barrage of documentary movies and series on weekends.

CNN Films has had 41 movies. It produced some, bought others, and kept the quality. Excellent ones have included Blackfish, Three Identical Strangers, Holy Hell, and profiles of Roger Ebert, Glen Campbell, Steve Jobs, Gilda Radner, John Lewis, Linda Ronstadt, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Then he brought in the series, starting in 2013 with the excellent Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Most have been light and competent. Tom Hanks has co-produced specials on each decade (with the illustrious leader of TVWW featured in the TV episode of each series) – the 1960s through the 2000s – plus The Movies. Other producers have ranged from comedy to First Ladies.

Now two new, good series arrive back-to-back on Sunday (Feb. 14). Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy (9 p.m. ET) is an intelligent mix of food, folks, and travel; Lincoln: Divided We Stand (10 p.m. ET) is a solid history tale that feels relevant now.

And more are coming. There's a good chance Zucker will be leaving as (this time) a winner.

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