Jeff Zucker, President, CNN Worldwide joined Fortune's Andy Serwer at Brainstorm Tech 2013.
ANDY SERWER: (Applause.) Well, it’s great to have Jeff here. And, by the way, the last name rhymes with —
JEFF ZUCKER: “Hooker.”
ANDY SERWER: Right. True thing, that’s how it’s pronounced, so no controversy there.
Jeff, we’re delighted to have you here.
JEFF ZUCKER: Thank you for having me.
ANDY SERWER: You’re welcome, I think you wanted to tell the people a little bit — you’re a little under the weather.
JEFF ZUCKER: I am. Just so everybody knows, I am actually dealing with a case of Bell’s palsy on the left side of my face. It’s about my seventh week. I’m totally fine. It will go away, but as a result, my speech is a little slurred, so I apologize for that. But I’m all good, it will be fine in time. But we’re just dealing with that as we sit here.
ANDY SERWER: And if anyone tells any jokes, he may not laugh.
JEFF ZUCKER: Right, as a result, I can’t laugh. So I know Andy’s going to be really funny. But I won’t be able to laugh at those jokes, so you guys will have to laugh.
ANDY SERWER: The reason why he’s not laughing at Andy is because Andy usually isn’t funny.
Anyway, Jeff, of course, is president of CNN Worldwide. Started January 1st, basically this year. And before that, of course, was the CEO of NBC Universal, a longstanding television veteran. Used to be a wunderkind.
JEFF ZUCKER: That’s a long time ago. I’m a lot older now.
ANDY SERWER: That was a long time ago, but yeah, now when you get sort of towards the half-century mark, you kind of lose that a little bit.
JEFF ZUCKER: Thanks.
ANDY SERWER: Anyway, you’re welcome.
JEFF ZUCKER: See, I can’t laugh.
ANDY SERWER: You can’t laugh. Because it’s not funny. Anyway, being the head of CNN is an amazing job, high-profile job, a challenging job. You are right in the spotlight. And I guess the first thing to ask you is, you know, what are you trying to do? And what is the strategy? And does it matter if someone like me gets the strategy, or is it just building viewers?
JEFF ZUCKER: Well, I mean, you know, I’d like you to understand a little bit of the strategy, but we also want those viewers. Look, I think the strategy — look, CNN remains one of the great brands in news and information in the world. And the key I think is to make sure that CNN is essential to as many people as possible both here in the United States and around the world. And that’s how we succeed is by being essential.
Now, the key CNN has usually been essential in times of breaking news and people would use CNN a little bit like the spare tire in the trunk. You would take it out when you needed it, and then put it back.
The key for us, and the goal and the strategy is to make sure that we are more essential more of the time. So actually you’re using that tire on the car all the time.
And that’s really been the goal for us this year is to build programming with hosts and anchors that will bring people back on a more regular basis.
We actually are in the middle of a very good year. We’re having much more success than we have had before. And we’ve got a long way to go. But the strategy is to be more essential more of the time. And have you come to us not just when the royal baby is born.
ANDY SERWER: Right. But it’s interesting, I mean, wouldn’t your predecessor have said the same thing? We want CNN to be urgent.
JEFF ZUCKER: Yeah.
ANDY SERWER: We want people to watch CNN all the time.
JEFF ZUCKER: Well, of course. Then I think it’s how you get there. Then it’s execution, right?
And, look, I think one of the things that we’ve talked about in our new strategy is broadening the definition of what news is and not being above what people are talking about or what people are interested in.
I think it became — you know, when I came in, one of the slogans at CNN was that “CNN equals politics.” And I said — I put a line through that and said that CNN does not equal politics. Obviously, politics is a huge part of what we do and will continue to be. But really, that has to be that CNN is greater than politics.
You know, we have two domestic cable network competitors who are basically about politics all the time. What I want CNN to be about is all of the news. And all of the news is not just what’s happening in Washington or in the Middle East, but it’s also about entertainment and business and sports and culture and things that we all talk about, but not just equals politics.
ANDY SERWER: All right, see, I get that. And you know, that’s sort of — I didn’t realize that. Obviously, Fox and MSNBC so consumed, I didn’t realize to the extent that CNN was, but of course it was trying to chase that. And it seems really like something would pan out because you have so many people so passionate about it. But it’s really very narrow.
JEFF ZUCKER: Yeah, look, I think that there are — as I said, if you have your two main competitors doing politics all the time, and doing a good job at it in their respective places. I mean, I have nothing but respect for what both places are doing.
But they’re playing from the 20 yard line in and talking to the people who are passionate about their points of view. That leaves a lot of room in the middle of the playing field where I think we can win.
ANDY SERWER: Now, of course, you get it both ways, though. When you don’t have any ratings and then your ratings — you’re building up your ratings, but you’re going after other kinds of news, the same critics go, oh, you’re going soft. You’re covering the cruise ship. You’re doing soft news. It’s junk. You’re dumbing down CNN. What about that?
JEFF ZUCKER: Yeah, well, I disagree with that. First of all, we’re still covering all that other news. Okay? You know, we’re still all over what’s going on in Washington, and we’re still all over what’s going on in Egypt. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t cover stories of great human interest.
You know, one of the most important stories in the history of CNN was a little girl in a well in Texas and her recovery and wellbeing.
You know, there have been a lot of people who have talked about our coverage of the cruise line in the Gulf of Mexico. Most of it came from our competitors who were jealous that we had the foresight to figure out how to be out in the Gulf of Mexico to cover that.
I have said many times that if 3,000 people were trapped in an office building in Chicago without any electricity, running water or food and couldn’t get out, every television station and network and magazine and newspaper would be covering that story nonstop. Just because they were on a cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico doesn’t make it any less interesting or important. And the fact that we had the foresight to be able to cover it brought some criticism mostly from our competitors, and the fact is, the audience was quite interested in it.
And I think that’s a part of not being above — you know, listen, we’re still going to cover what’s going on in Washington. We’re still going to cover what’s going on in the middle east. But we’re not going to be above also covering that human interest story in the Gulf of Mexico.
ANDY SERWER: The same thing with Trayvon Martin. I mean, you guys owned that story. Again, you know, the critics are, like, oh, you know, they went overboard.
And I think it’s fair to say at some point —
JEFF ZUCKER: Well, I would say what’s interesting about that is there’s actually been no criticism of it since the verdict happened and everybody recognized all the layers to that story. Some of the criticism came beforehand.
You know, again, I think that we did recognize early on that this was much more than just a local murder trial, that there were issues of race and class and the Second Amendment and self-defense. And there were a lot of layers to this story. And I think that we realized that, maybe before others did, and then some people wanted to criticize that.
Then once the verdict comes down and it becomes an even bigger story and you have the President of the United States issuing a statement and then coming into the White House press briefing room and making an even larger statement, there’s actually been no criticism since the verdict came down, and that’s because I think people recognized, oh, maybe they were right. So, you know, that’s okay. You know, if we got there first, then the benefits go to us.
ANDY SERWER: Right. Well, we’ll come back to some of the news in a minute. But I want to talk about digital and platforms and obviously that’s near and dear to everyone’s heart here in this room, and near and dear to your heart I think as well.
JEFF ZUCKER: Yeah. Well, look, I think that’s the whole future of CNN, to be honest with you. I mean, to us, it doesn’t matter where people access CNN.
You know, if you go back to the Boston bombings, more people learned about what happened in Boston from CNN than any other source in the world. And that’s because they watched it on CNN. They watched it on CNN International around the world, and they accessed it through CNN.com or CNN Mobile or any of our digital assets.
And I think that really is the future of CNN is we’re not going to care what screen you’re watching CNN on, as long as there’s a CNN red logo on whatever asset you’re accessing. And to us, mobile is probably the most important part of our future, but digital as a whole is where we’re concentrating everything.
We are integrating digital and our newsgathering efforts to make it one, as it should be. I mean, these organizations grew up separately and there was CNN that — you, obviously, have been through this as well.
It’s going to be digital first for CNN going forward. And that is as important a part of our strategy as anything.
ANDY SERWER: Right. I mean, one way of looking at it, of course, is you have your CNN television feed that you can sort of put on all the platforms, right? And then the other one, well, there are a million ways to look at it, but let me just follow this one.
So you’ve got that endeavor, right?
JEFF ZUCKER: Sure.
ANDY SERWER: Watching CNN on —
JEFF ZUCKER: Yeah, I watched CNN on my iPad yesterday.
ANDY SERWER: Okay. But it’s also creating actual new content to go on those platforms, right? And you’re doing both of those?
JEFF ZUCKER: We’re doing both. I think you have to do both. I think we live in a world where you have to do both, and that’s really where we are.
You know, you look at what happened yesterday with the news of the royal baby, and again, we can argue all day long how important that story is or whatever. But the fact is —
ANDY SERWER: Did you guys get the name of the baby, by the way?
JEFF ZUCKER: We don’t have it yet.
ANDY SERWER: No one really has that yet?
JEFF ZUCKER: I think there’s probably two people who know it, but they haven’t told anybody.
ANDY SERWER: They’re keeping it private.
JEFF ZUCKER: No, but we looked at what happened yesterday, and I just got the digital numbers. And they were extraordinary. We had more than 12 million unique visitors to CNN.com yesterday. We had more than 85 million page views. We had more than five million video starts. And every one of those numbers is up some 40 percent over the same day a year ago.
Now, obviously, huge story. But what it shows is that people are coming to CNN. Now, our TV numbers were quite good yesterday. I don’t have the final numbers. We know that our early TV numbers were quite good. But more people learned about the royal baby and followed the royal baby story through all of our digital assets than will ever watch television yesterday, and that’s okay.
That’s our future and we are — you know, there’s a lot of focus on what the ratings are on television. And, look, that’s a better story for us than it has been. So when people used to write the CNN, they would put “ratings challenged” before it. That’s no longer the case. Listen, again, we’ve got a long way to go, but that’s not really the narrative anymore.
But the truth is, digital and people consuming their news and information from all of our digital assets, that’s the most important thing for us.
ANDY SERWER: But to the extent that you’re creating other content to go on digital platforms.
JEFF ZUCKER: We are.
ANDY SERWER: Videos and —
JEFF ZUCKER: We are. We’re hiring — listen, two of the last hires that we’ve made for correspondents were for digital, okay? Now, will they show up on television? Yeah, they’ll show up on television from time to time. But we hired those correspondents as digital correspondents. And we’re going to do more of that.
ANDY SERWER: But won’t that digital content cannibalize your television?
JEFF ZUCKER: No. First of all, you know, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. So people are going to access all this content digitally, then as long as it says CNN on it, I’m okay. And so if there’s going to be a cannibalization, I’d rather it be with CNN. But I don’t really buy into that premise anyway.
The fact is, look at the younger audience, 18- to 34-year olds, okay? Most 18- to 34-year-olds probably know of CNN from our digital products, okay? But we also know that when news happens, those same people do come to watch us on television.
Again, back to Boston. In all of television that night, in all of television, CNN was the number-two television network, not cable, in all of television, number two among 18- to 34-year-olds that night, and we only lost by 2,000 viewers. We would have been number one.
So 18- to 34-year-olds may principally know us from our digital products, but they will find their way to us on television. And that’s actually very important to us as we look at the next five, ten, 15 years.
ANDY SERWER: Let me ask you about some competitors out there. Al Jazeera America.
JEFF ZUCKER: Yes.
ANDY SERWER: It sounds like they’re looking to do something kind of similar to CNN. Do you take it seriously?
JEFF ZUCKER: Oh, totally. I mean, listen. You have to take all your competitors seriously. I remember vividly when I was at NBC Universal and CNBC was one of the crown jewels within the company and Fox announced that they were going to launch the Fox Business Network. And everybody wrote, oh, this is going to be trouble for CNBC, or this is the end for CNBC because Fox, you know, and they know how to do it.
And here we are — so we set up a massive war room and we took it very seriously. And here we are ten years later and I think CNBC is doing just fine compared to Fox Business.
ANDY SERWER: Do you have a war room against Al Jazeera?
JEFF ZUCKER: So we don’t have a war room, but we are taking it very seriously. You know, and I think you have to take all of your competition seriously. And I think you make a huge mistake if you don’t.
Now, look, I think the key is not to let somebody else take you out of your game, right? And not to react to other people and what they’re doing and stick to your own knitting.
So we take them seriously like we take all of our competition seriously. But we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and keep moving forward with the strategy that I outlined with you.
Listen, they have deep pockets. They have a lot of money. They’re hiring a lot of people. That’s good for the business. More competition should make everybody better and we’ll keep doing what we’re going to do.
ANDY SERWER: All right, how would you fix the Today Show? (Laughter.)
JEFF ZUCKER: That’s funny. (Laughter.) I can’t laugh.
No, look, I mean, listen, the Today Show, I think the key to all of those programs — and we had a tremendous amount of success for many years — is obviously the chemistry between the people who are on the show. And I think that that’s what makes or breaks those shows. I think the Today Show, obviously, has had a difficult year and a half, brought on a lot of it itself. And those are the worst kinds of mistakes. But I think you have to look at — you have to have folks who people want to watch day in and day out. And I’d probably start by taking a look at that, and that’s where you have to start.
It’s not about tinkering with the rundown or which story you do first or second. Those shows are about are there people you want to watch? And that’s where I think I would start.
ANDY SERWER: So we talked about this a little bit, Jeff. How do you do that? I mean, you get these — you know, you have this talent that’s brought to you, their agents are pushing you, they have friends, they’re attractive, they’ve got track records, they look pretty good, this person looks good with that person, you put them there and watch them in a dark room. I mean, how do you make those calls?
JEFF ZUCKER: Well, I mean, listen, a lot of this is your own judgment, your gut. We just did it at CNN with our new morning show we launched five weeks ago. And we did a number of screen tests, to be honest with you. And then at the end of the day, you go with your gut and what you think.
When I was at the Today Show, we were incredibly fortunate. You know, two of the best people ever to do morning television, maybe the two best ever to do morning television walked in our doors within a year of each other. Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. And we put them together and we knew we had something very special.
And then we were very fortunate when Katie left to find Meredith Viera. And some of it is knowing who’s talented, and some of it is knowing in your own gut what you think will work.
There’s a degree of magic to that chemistry that sometimes you’ve just got to be lucky, too.
ANDY SERWER: You guys — and most if it’s before your tenure — CNN’s had a tough time with prime time. Gone through a lot of different people. What’s your thinking about prime time for CNN?
JEFF ZUCKER: Well, I mean, listen, we’re doing a lot better already right now. You know, we’ve had a much better year this year. In fairness, though, it’s still not where we want it to be and it’s not as strong as we want it to be. And it is the next area that we are going to focus on.
We launched a new afternoon show with Jake Tapper that’s gotten off to a very good start. We launched a new international hour at noon that’s doing incredibly well. We launched a new morning show that, five weeks in, is also doing very well.
We’ve announced we’re bringing back Crossfire in September.
ANDY SERWER: And who is going to be on Crossfire?
JEFF ZUCKER: So the hosts of Crossfire will be Newt Gingrich, S.E. Cupp, Van Jones, and Stephanie Cutter. And I think if you think about the history of Crossfire, that’s a very different face for Crossfire.
ANDY SERWER: So is Newt an employee of CNN?
JEFF ZUCKER: Newt is an employee of CNN. And listen, I’m thrilled to have Newt there. Look, I think that he’s already been a part of a bunch of our programming. Newt is an incredibly smart, intellectual thinker. I think, frankly, one of the criticisms of CNN that it didn’t have enough conservative points of view on the air was probably a valid criticism. And I think that in Newt, we immediately have one of the most intellectual conservative thinkers in the world. So I’m very proud of that. I think S.E. Cupp is a fantastic addition for us as well.
So those have been what we’ve done. And the next thing is we’re going to look at prime time on CNN and start to think about where we go from here. We haven’t had a regular 10:00 show in a while, it’s been a repeat of Anderson Cooper’s 8:00 show, and so that’s obviously something that we’re going to work on.
Anderson has just had a tremendous year. And as I said, it’s one of the things where you talk about prime time, Anderson has been fantastic doing shows at 8:00 and live shows at 10:00 and it’s a great thing to build off of.
ANDY SERWER: But isn’t, you know, the whole long tail of the news business just going to erode ratings forever going forward? I mean, isn’t that really the nature of the beast? I mean, you look at —
JEFF ZUCKER: Well, I don’t know. I mean, CNN’s ratings are up quite dramatically this year. So, you know, now, yes, we started off low. Fair enough. Fair enough. But the fact is, there’s no guarantees in the world, right? So there’s nothing that said we had to go up. Right?
ANDY SERWER: That’s true.
JEFF ZUCKER: But we’ve gone up, and our ratings are up quite well this year. So, look, I think this comes down to execution and doing a good job. Next, we’ll look at prime time.
I don’t buy into the fact that there has to be a natural decline every year. I don’t buy into that. On the other hand, as long as you’re essential to enough people, then you’ll be successful.
ANDY SERWER: Do you ever see a day when the CPMs of digital and the CPMs of television are the same? Because they’re not now.
JEFF ZUCKER: Well, no, no, no, they’re not. When they’re the same — look, I think that — you know, who’s to say? You know? Who’s to say what the world looks like in ten years? So I think anybody who makes that prediction, I wouldn’t put a lot in it.
Do I think they’ll be the same? I wouldn’t rule it out. I wouldn’t rule it out. Who knows where the world is going?
ANDY SERWER: Right. Right. Going back to digital for a minute, Jeff. Can you talk about your — is it a joint venture with BuzzFeed that you’re doing on You Tube? What is that?
JEFF ZUCKER: Yes, so listen, again, in saying that digital is really one of our biggest priorities, one of the things that we looked at was I’m a huge fan of BuzzFeed. I think that they do a terrific job. I wanted to be associated with BuzzFeed. And so we have entered into a joint venture for a You Tube channel. And we are producing original content for that, the two organizations are. And, frankly, that’s just the start. There’s a lot more that I want to do and that I know that BuzzFeed also wants to do.
And I think it does two things: One, it introduces BuzzFeed’s audience to CNN, and obviously gives BuzzFeed a little bit of credibility of CNN. And it introduces CNN to a whole new audience that probably some of whom never heard of CNN. And that’s good. So I think that’s why it works for both sides.
So we’re going to do a lot more. I’m a huge fan of BuzzFeed and think they’ve done a great job.
ANDY SERWER: Interesting. I’d like to throw the floor open to questions right now. I think we’ve got one over here. You can ask about, “What’s Wolf Blitzer really like?” (Laughter.) Or maybe not.
JEFF ZUCKER: I can’t laugh.
QUESTION: Jeff, a couple years ago you were at a different conference. And I believe you talked about the challenge between analog dollars and digital dollars.
JEFF ZUCKER: I think it was pennies at the time.
QUESTION: Well, you said pennies, but maybe now it’s dimes?
JEFF ZUCKER: Right, exactly, fair enough.
QUESTION: So where are we? And you’re still getting very large checks from Comcast and Time Warner.
JEFF ZUCKER: Yeah, totally.
QUESTION: And how do you navigate this transition that we all know is coming?
JEFF ZUCKER: Look, we’re much further along than pennies, and we’re further along I think than dimes, and we’re probably a little north of quarters. You know, I don’t know that there’s 50-cent pieces, but somewhere between that.
So, obviously, we’re making progress. And that’s why I don’t think you can say for sure where it’s all going, but we’re making progress.
Now, you raised an incredibly important point about, obviously, the bulk of our revenue comes from distributors like Time Warner Cable and Comcast and DirecTV, et cetera. And I think the most important thing is for us to be essential enough to those distributors. And that’s why I come back to being essential enough to people who watch us.
You know, people are going to learn about what happens in this world now from Twitter and Facebook, but they’re going to come to CNN to see if it’s true. Or they’re going to come to CNN to see what’s really going on. And that’s okay, and that’s why, again, we have to be essential enough to those people. And that’s why television will remain incredibly important to what we’re doing.
But we can’t ignore the numbers that came to us yesterday on the royal baby. So I think we have to balance both, understanding where our bread is buttered for the time being, for sure.
ANDY SERWER: Great. Question over here. There are two, I’m sorry. You’ll be next.
QUESTION: Hi, I’m from Janus Capital. So with the inflation that we’ve seen from sports programming over the last five years has been the big driver of costs, including also with retrans, how do you to the cable companies and say, “My ratings are up and I want another 10 percent.” when they have all this pressure from sports and retrans?
JEFF ZUCKER: Well, I think there’s a lot of issues in there. I think just with regard to CNN and how do we get properly paid for what we’re doing, I think the key there is for us to be the best at what we’re doing, and to be the most essential news and information provider on any one of those outlets. And as long as we are essential enough to enough people and providing the best news and information, then we should be paid properly for that.
I understand pressure that they may have from other sources, but that’s a separate issue from what we’re providing. But, you know, in a world where ESPN is essential to a lot of people who want to watch whatever games they’re providing, CNN needs to be, should be, and is essential enough to a lot of people who want to find out what’s going on in Tahrir Square in Cairo or what’s going on in Syria or what’s going on at Buckingham Palace, or wherever it is.
And we have to be good enough and strong enough so that we are essential. And as long as we are that, then I think we should be paid for it regardless of the other pressures that they have.
ANDY SERWER: Some questions over here.
QUESTION: Hi, Nick Milloni (ph.) with Herman Miller. I’d like to talk about objectivity and its impact on your business. It feels like over the last 20 years, the line between news and editorial has blurred. And then maybe within the last five, the lines between editorial and even advertising have started to blur. What are your thoughts? How do you position yourself? What is your strategy with that?
JEFF ZUCKER: Yeah. So, look, we think about that a lot. Obviously, in a world where our competitors have made a lack of objectivity part of their strategy, which is fine, and I’m not being critical of that at all. They’ve done a very good job with that strategy.
But what I do think, that actually does leave room for somebody to be objective. And that’s the path that we’ve chosen. But just because you say your objective doesn’t mean you need to be boring. Okay? And I think that’s the big mistake.
People think that, you know, oh, it’s more exciting to be partisan, but just because you’re being objective does not give you a license to be dull.
So for us, the path is objectivity. And just because you’re being objective doesn’t mean you can’t have points of view. Witness, Crossfire, okay?
So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with those partisan channels and what they’re doing. There’s a great history of, you know, journalism both in the U.K. and in the United States that wasn’t objective. And that’s fine. But I do think there’s an important place for an objective channel, and that’s why I think we’ll get paid for it. And that’s why I think there is a winning strategy, just don’t be dull. And I think that’s where people confuse those two things.
ANDY SERWER: All right, we’re going to have to leave it at that. I’m sorry, maybe you can grab Jeff outside. Anyway, we really appreciate you coming by.
JEFF ZUCKER: Thank you for inviting me.
ANDY SERWER: And I hope you’re better.
JEFF ZUCKER: Thank you very much.
ANDY SERWER: And we’ll be watching what happens at CNN with great interest.
JEFF ZUCKER: Thank you very much.
ANDY SERWER: Thanks very much, Jeff. (Applause.)