CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker spent a decade waking up before dawn to produce NBC’s Today show, but he was still impressed that so many students were willing to rise early to attend the Carey Business School’s Leaders + Legends breakfast lecture series last September 11.
Sitting beside Carey’s Dean Bernard T. Ferrari at the school’s Harbor East campus, Zucker covered a variety of topics: personal reflections on his professional experience as someone who has spent his whole career in one industry, the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the transformation of the way multimedia news is collected and conveyed in the age of instant video uploads and microblogging.
As chief of 23 branded entities, including CNN International, CNN Digital, and HLN, Zucker said his decisions play out live, globally, on a 24/7 basis. To reach this point, he learned the ropes of television and media during decades of major change in technology and taste.
The period between his role as a researcher at NBC during the 1988 Seoul Olympics and his appointment to president and chief executive officer of NBC Universal included a 10-year stint as executive producer of Today, a position he took at age 26. He said he was cocky in those early days of leadership, but like many top executives who built their careers by rising through the corporate ranks, he learned quickly and “got my MBA on the job.” After he spent decades working in one building, a change of ownership at NBC led him to make the move to his current post. He was sad to leave 30 Rockefeller Center but glad to take the next step in early 2013: “I love television and I love news, and if you love those two things, it often moves you to CNN.”
“Digital is what I spend most of my time thinking about in terms of where the business is going.”
– Jeff Zucker, CNN Worldwide President
Zucker, after nearly two years of running CNN, shared his observations about what television news means. “There is nothing said anymore that isn’t disseminated in some way,” he said of the ubiquity of news collection and sharing. “I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how video has completely changed what we do.” At the time of his visit, a handful of stories – ranging from the Ray Rice domestic abuse case to beheadings by ISIS – dominated the national and global news cycles. “Video,” he pointed out, “has played a tremendous role in every one.”
In many cases, the footage that makes the news these days is not collected by expensive network cameras but by citizens using their mobile phones. That speed of publication poses a challenge for news organizations such as CNN Worldwide, and Zucker said he has laid down the law to his employees: Get each point of a story right rather than getting it on the air before competing networks or websites. “I don’t care if we’re first on something,” he said, “but it’s far more important for us to be right.”
“Everybody has an opinion about CNN,” said Zucker, 49. Occasionally those views are expressed directly through social networks, through satire, or on CNN’s own air when interviews get heated or when Web comments are read live. He said he has an in-house focus group of his four children, who provide him with honest, valuable insights on a daily basis. Their world is digital, and they are the future audience that companies such as CNN strive to attract.
“Digital is what I spend most of my time thinking about in terms of where the business is going,” Zucker explained. CNN Digital is an increasingly large piece of the pie that he must consider as a whole, yet there are splits even within that segment. For instance, the way that people consume CNN via the Internet is shifting from the personal computer to the mobile device at Web-speed. In just one year, he told the audience, the split between mobile and desktop consumption of CNN Digital content went from 35 percent mobile/65 percent desktop to 50/50. Zucker said he has to look at CNN’s shifting online presence and revenue flows with predictive insight, and not as an issue peripheral to the TV business: “It will matter big-time when full monetization of digital comes. My job is leading the organization through that change.”
“Sometimes units of the organization will shut down, and new ones will be created,” he added, also noting his duty to articulate why segments of the CNN Worldwide workforce sometimes are cut, along with business operations. “I cannot shrink from that responsibility.”