Friday, September 24, 2010

Rearranging the Deck Chairs (Media Executive Suite Edition)

The chattering class is abuzz over the news that two major media executives, Jeff Zucker of NBC and Jonathan Klein of CNN, are leaving their jobs.

Zucker, the one-time wunderkind who was named executive producer of the Today show at 26, and went on to become the chief executive of NBC Universal, announced his departure today, in an e-mail to company employees. From The New York Times account:

The fate of Mr. Zucker, the longest-serving senior manager at NBC, had been the subject of widespread speculation since Comcast agreed in December to purchase 51 percent of NBCU from its long-time corporate owner, General Electric. The deal is expected to close at the end of the year, following regulatory approval.

In an interview at NBC’s executive offices, Mr. Zucker, who is 45, said the decision to leave the only employer he has ever worked for — a decision that he acknowledged was not his own choice — became inevitable after a meeting two weeks ago with Steve Burke, Comcast’s chief operating officer.

Mr. Klein's departure was revealed in an e-mail to network staffers from Jim Walton, the President of CNN Worldwide. Klein told the Times he was fired earlier this week in a meeting with Mr. Walton.

Klein is a former CBS manager best known for his description of bloggers as "guys sitting in their living rooms in their pajamas, writing what they think." Mickey Kaus, hardly a member of the vast right-wing conspiracy, describes Mr. Klein's tenure as leading CNN from from "failure to failure, all the while keeping up a patter of confident, self-righteous spin."

Klein's efforts to reshape CNN--and his complete lack of success--certainly support that assessment. Shortly after joining the network, Klein publicly sided with comedian Jon Stewart, who said that CNN's long-running debate show, Crossfire, was "hurting" America. Klein tried to reinvent the network with with such programs as Campbell Brown's much-hyped interview show, which was cancelled after less than two years on the air. Other Klein creations, including Anderson Cooper 360, The Situation Room, John King USA and Fareed Zakaria GPS remain, but almost no one is watching them.

And that's the bottom line for any TV executive. When the number of eyeballs watching your show is low, your days are numbered. After almost six years under Klein's leadership, CNN is mired at the bottom in prime time, lagging well behind Fox News and even MSNBC, which has benefitted from the implosion at the original cable news network.

In fact, CNN sometimes trails sister network Headline News (HLN) which has adapted a more tabloid format in recent years. HLN's most popular program is headlined by former prosecutor (and Court TV anchor) Nancy Grace, who spends an hour of prime time dissecting particularly lurid crimes. HLN also has "debate" shows featuring one-time news anchor Jane Velez-Mitchell and comedianne Joy Behar. None could be described as candidates for a Peabody Award, but they regularly attract more viewers than CNN's flagship network.

So, it comes as no surprise that CNN has named the former chief of HLN, Ken Jautz, to replace Klein. For now, Mr. Jautz has promised to stick with Jon Klein's parting gifts to cable viewers, a new prime-time show anchored by former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer (a.k.a. Client #9), conservative columnist Kathleen Parker. He also hired former British newspaper editor Piers Morgan (best known for his judging duties on America's Got Talent) as the replacement for Larry King.

No one really expects these programs to work, so Mr. Jautz's first order of business will be developing replacements. It's a sad, but familiar pattern at CNN, which invented cable news and dominated the landscape for almost 20 years.

Still, it's not hard to see why CNN keeps losing viewers. The network insists its coverage is "straight down the middle," despite the liberal bias that is obvious in virtually all of its shows. And, following Mr. Klein's less confrontational philosophy, CNN's product was often bland and dull, driving away much of its audience. Of course, that didn't keep Jon Klein from patting himself on the back. In his first "post-termination" interview, the fired CNN President claimed he left the network "much stronger" than he found it. That's tantamount to saying the Titanic was more seaworthy after it struck the iceberg.

As for Mr. Zucker, his contributions to NBC were also celebrated, even as his departure was announced. On the balance, Zucker was a much more successful broadcast exec than Jon Klein. He built Today into the dominant morning news show, transforming it into a cash cow that delivers more than $300 million in yearly profits to the network.

That accomplishment won Zucker the top post in NBC's Entertainment Division, and later, the job of network president. In those capacities, his record is decidedly mixed. NBC's prime-time line-up, which dominated the ratings for much of the 80s and 90s, fell into a tailspin during Zucker's watch. The network's evening programs now often finish fourth in their time slots, trailing CBS, Fox and ABC.

Making matters worse, Mr. Zucker also presided over one of the biggest programming blunders in TV history. Anxious to keep Conan O'Brien in the fold--without chasing off Tonight Show host Jay Leno--Zucker hit upon a compromise. O'Brien would get Tonight, while Leno moved to prime time, with a show airing at 10 pm eastern time, five nights a week.

You know the rest. Leno bombed in his new slot, and with O'Brien fronting Tonight, that show fell behind David Letterman on CBS and even ABC's revamped Nightline. Meanwhile, NBC's local stations saw ratings sag for their late, local news programs, with little lead-in from the Leno program. The experiment lasted less than a year, but it cost NBC millions in lost revenue. Many were surprised that Zucker kept his job after the debacle.

Instead, it took a buy-out of NBC (by cable giant Comcast) to end the Zucker era. Comcast has a reputation for running a tight operation, focusedly squarely on the bottom line. When Comcast takes control of NBC in a few months, they will implement their own vision, under the likely leadership of company Chief Operating Officer Steve Burke. After cutting his teeth at ABC and Disney, Burke has been a senior executive at Comcast for the past 12 years.

As NBC's President-in-waiting, Burke will have a chance to transform the network. Given Comcast's roots in cable and the internet, it is believed that Burke may move NBC away from its decades-old model of broadcasting programs through local affiliates (including those owned by the network) and eventually move all of NBC's programming onto cable channels. At a minimum, the future of the network will be more closely tied to cable and the web, rather than over-the-air broadcasting.

Of course, there is an irony in today's reshuffle. In his coverage of Klein and Zucker's departure, Matt Drudge ran a picture of Fox News President Roger Ailes, dubbing him the "last man standing." While CNN and MSBNC scratch for ratings left-overs (and network news programs keep losing viewers), Fox has become the dominant outlet in cable news, expected to deliver $700 million in profits to parent News Corp this year, and $1 billion in profits next year.

Not too many years ago, Roger Ailes was an NBC executive, in charge of CNBC. But his bosses found him too low-brow for bigger assignments, like running MSNBC, or the network's news division. So, when NBC pulled the plug on his America's Talking cable channel, Ailes left NBC. The suits at Time-Warner had no interest in hiring him for CNN, so Ailes took his talents to News Corp, where he launched Fox News.

The rest, as they say, is history. Ailes innovated and thrived, while other media execs keep trying to make their 1980s model work in the 21st Century. The sacking of Zucker and Klein was inevitable, and so is the eventual firing of their successors. Changes in the executive suite at places like NBC and CNN are the equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Andrea Doria. The result will be the same, but the media ship may look a bit more graceful as its slips beneath the waves of change.


Best Line Department: Bernard Goldberg, who knew Klein at CBS, said the deposed executive viewed those who told the truth as "lacking imagination." Go figure.

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