Interview: CNN’s Jeff Zucker on employment growth, Vice, Don Lemon, Corey Lewandowski

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com on the AJC Radio & TV Talk blog on Tuesday, November 8, 2016

My business colleague Matt Kempner late last month nabbed an hour-long interview with CNN president Jeff Zucker while he was in town. I tagged along.

Please read his column here.  He focused mostly on how CNN will manage life after the election after a record-breaking year in revenue and ratings, plus how they’ve closed the gap against Fox News, even beating them several months out of this year in the key 25-54 advertising-friendly demo.

Here are some other issues Zucker addressed. (I threw in some questions myself. He declined to address recent race discrimination lawsuits against the company by the likes of Ricky Blalock and Omar Butcher.)

Employment growth: CNN now has about 3,400 employees with 1,700 still in Atlanta. “It’s a trying time for media businesses. But the past two years, CNN has invested heavily hiring hundreds of people and frankly that is going to continue. This is a time of tremendous growth and expansion at CNN. That is going to continue.” [Technically, CNN has cut some folks and added others so I’m not sure if overall employment numbers have increased.] He said they are growing digital with CNN.com continuing as the biggest digital news website out there. CNN.com, he noted, is not wholly dependent on politics. “We built that brand equity,” he said. He said they had five reporters in Iraq a week earlier and are the only U.S. media entity with a correspondent in Havana. “We are better positioned going forward digitally and globally than anyone.”

The CNN main newsroom in Atlanta in September, 2014. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

The CNN main newsroom in Atlanta in September, 2014. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

CNN Center renovations? “I think that is all in active talks and I would anticipate that is going to happen at some point.”

Would he hire Megyn Kelly? He didn’t take the bait. “She’s a very talented journalist” is all he would say.

On HLN’s shift in strategy to more nuts-and-bolts news: “We’ve settled on a strategy we’re very comfortable with. We’ve added three live news programs in the last few months. We’ve added a spate of new original programming there. CNN covers the one, two or three big stories. HLN tells a wider array of stories. At night, they focus on investigation and crime. They are investing in that strategy and have seen great success so far.”

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 10: CCN's Nancy Grace attends the CNN Worldwide All-Star 2014 Winter TCA Party at Langham Hotel on January 10, 2014 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

PASADENA, CA – JANUARY 10: CCN’s Nancy Grace attends the CNN Worldwide All-Star 2014 Winter TCA Party at Langham Hotel on January 10, 2014 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

On losing Nancy Grace: “Nancy was a really important part of the network for many years and she made the decision [to leave.] We totally respect that. That’s given us frankly to rethink what we do in prime time.”

TrumpTV? “Given the world we live in, anybody can have their own broadcast network through their Internet and streaming. And is there room for it? Clearly, he has millions of followers right? People who agree with his point of view. It’s hard to do but he would certainly have a following. Whether he can turn that into a business, I don’t know.”

Streaming impact on CNN: “The drop off is not as steep as many thought it would be… We’ve remained essential and that’s the goal going forward.”

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 9: Corey Lewandowski, campaign manager for Donald Trump, gives the thumbs up as he leaves the Four Seasons Hotel after a meeting with Trump and Republican donors, June 9, 2016 in New York City. Trump previously stated he planned to raise one billion dollars, but has since pulled back on his fundraising goal. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 9: Corey Lewandowski, campaign manager for Donald Trump, gives the thumbs up as he leaves the Four Seasons Hotel after a meeting with Trump and Republican donors, June 9, 2016 in New York City. Trump previously stated he planned to raise one billion dollars, but has since pulled back on his fundraising goal. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

On hiring Corey Lewandowski: “I feel good about all of the Trump voices that we’ve added this year. I think its important that point of view be represented on CNN.”

Regrets over Trump coverage? Not really. “I feel really good about it… I’m still very very proud of our political coverage the past 18 months” He said he may not have aired as many uninterrupted Trump campaign rallies in the summer of 2015.

Virtual reality: “We are going to continue to experiment with that.”

Great Big Story: “It’s got its own audience. The average audience is 25 years old. They’re working on a series for the Weather Channel in Atlanta.”

Don Lemon

Don Lemon, moved from Atlanta to New York and prime time by Zucker: “Don has done great. He’s really grown tremendously. He’s had a great run. He’s a big part of our success.”

His thoughts on Vice: “Everyone talks about Vice and its ability to reach Millennials Who reaches more Millennials than anybody? CNN.”

How important is CNN, the network? “TV still pays the bills but digital is growing. [He didn’t provide a breakdown.] Most of our digital operation is [in Atlanta.]… Atlanta remains the heart and soul of CNN. That will continue to be the case.”

Would he take over Time Warner? No. He’s happy where he is now.

Arnold Schwarzenegger taking over “Celebrity Apprentice”? “Ehh… I don’t know.”

 

 

 

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