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Free advice to Jeff Zucker and CNN: What not to do ...
You're Jeff Zucker, about to become new chief executive of CNN, and you're getting a lot of unsolicited advice. Much of it, like most free and entirely unsolicited advice, is well meaning but essentially valueless, insofar as most people don't know what they're talking about. (But hey! It's the Internet, the world's biggest bar stool!)
So let's do something a little different here. As Jeff settles into his new cushy gig far about the madding crowd on Columbus Circle, let's tell him what not to do. Again — not WHAT to do, but what not to do . . . That should be easy, right?
1.) DO NOT turn CNN's prime time into a maelstrom of bloviating opinion that caters to some hitherto unattended demographic on the political spectrum, reasoning that — oh! — if MSNBC and Fox aren't doing this, then maybe there's an opportunity! No — there's not. Trust me.
2.) DO NOT go on an expensive hiring binge, by making the assumption that if only you had Personality X, or Personality Y, or especially Personality Z then the magic gates of ratings heaven would open wide. Except in rare instances, and increasingly rare ones — most often confined to those personalities who are noisiest and most politically skewed — does a personality change ratings. It just doesn't happen, despite what the agents tell you.
3.) DO NOT play the gimmicks game, by throwing up on-screen bumpers that read 'BREAKING NEWS ALERT! DO NOT TURN OFF THIS CHANNEL! WE ARE ABOUT TO TELL YOU SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT." News viewers aren't stupid. They know a con when the see one.
4.) DO NOT attempt to make CNN entertaining. What does "entertaining" mean, anyway? More stories on Lindsay Lohan that further establish her — and by association our — penchant for debasement? When news becomes "entertaining" it invariably becomes stupid. This of course DOES NOT mean you should not cover popular culture in an intelligent and critical way (if memory serves — you did that at "Today," but I admit my memory doesn't serve all that well any more . . .)
5.) DO NOT dump Wolf Blitzer, although you know you'll hear that from all corners of the Free Advice Kingdom ("oh Wolf! He's been there forever!" or "That beard!") Wolf represents continuity, institutional knowledge (although admittedly that's apparently no longer the coin of any realm)) and to a certain extent, a tie or bond with the traditional CNN viewer who DOES see him as impartial and straightforward.
6.) DO NOT dump Piers Morgan, although you know you'll hear that from all corners of the Free Advice Kingdom ("oh Piers, all that money and FOR WHAT!") What Piers needs is a sense of urgency — that every person he has on every night has some news to break and unless that person does not make news then that person will never be back again; news-breaking must be as imperative here as, to a certain extent, personality. Piers has a little-bit-to-a-lot of the type of personality currently being exhibited by Brett Easton Ellis — a shoot from the hip (if not necessarily the brains) quality that makes him somewhat unpredictable and even potentially dangerous. (Subset of Do Not Dump Piers — DO NOT attempt to make Piers un-dangerous.)
7.) DO NOT tear up the schedule, but attack piecemeal, setting in place, say, a watchable morning show that can at least mount a reasonable palliative to the yammering at "Fox and Friends." Proceed bit by bit, because the race goes to he/she who is most methodical and clever and insightful and . . .
8.) DO NOT introduce any form of unscripted "news"/entertainment fusion into the mix. (I read that somewhere — I mean fer gawd's sakes!) Like — you know — "Primetime Live with Donald Trump!" or "On the Road with the Kardashians." News, by its very nature, is "unscripted." It doesn't need to be dressed up like some tart.
9.) DO NOT scorn the past. CNN has one, and in that past, certain things, elements, styles even worked although — given the exigencies of competition, exacerbated by frantic knee-jerk executive decisions — were discarded. Find out why they worked, what worked, and whether something good, important or even elemental to the brand was discarded in a "baby out with the bathwater" moment.
10.) DO NOT read advice columns, including this one. (Well, maybe make one exception.) But really, advice columns tend to overlook a fundamental premise — that organizations, particularly worldwide ones, are complex organisms with many moving parts, interconnected in some cosmic if not necessarily visible way. Take time to learn this place — study it, meet the people, explore the history, learn the political framework, of how decisions are made or not made, and how Time Warner and Jeff Bewkes fit into the mix, as well as shareholders. Visit bureaus, talk to reporters, listen to them, absorb what they have to tell you and then . . . after all that, synthesize and move forward. Advice columns — this one too — are no surrogates for that (and if they are, you're in the wrong gig.)