Ratings recovery: Jeff Zucker likes to be close to the newsroom © Pascal Perich

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When Jeff Zucker was a boy growing up in Miami he ran a successful campaign for high school class president under the slogan: “The little man with big ideas”.

For the past 30 years he has been putting ideas about television into practice, most recently as president at CNN Worldwide. The cable news network is currently enjoying a ratings resurgence thanks to a shift in focus, programming changes and the rise of one Donald Trump.

Today the 51-year-old Mr Zucker is in pain, having recently had knee surgery. He winces as he sits down on the sofa in his small office, just off the CNN newsroom floor. But he is in good spirits, pleased that steps to revive the Time Warner-owned network, taken since his appointment three-and-a-half years ago, seem to be paying off.

CNN’s audience share has increased from 20 per cent of the total cable news audience in 2012 to close to 30 per cent in 2016, according to Nielsen: in the first quarter of 2016 it scored its highest ratings in seven years, thanks to intense interest in the US election campaign.

It is a big contrast to when he arrived at the network after a long career as a producer and a stint as chief executive of NBCUniversal. CNN was then in the doldrums, regularly losing out to rivals Fox News Channel and MSNBC.

“I think there were legitimate questions about its future and whether it could be turned around,” he says. His job was to “revitalise one of the great brands — not just in television but in journalism”.

He started by screening original films and hiring personalities, such as the activist Morgan Spurlock and the chef Anthony Bourdain, to front new documentary-style shows that were a departure from CNN’s usual diet of rolling news.

He rethought how the network presented the biggest stories, making them the focus of the channel’s coverage and devoting more airtime to one main theme or news event.

“Our approach is different than it was. We go all in and commit to round-the-clock coverage of that big story, and swarm it with resources,” he says.

The change has not always gone down well with critics or hosts of late-night comedy shows, who took exception to and mocked the weeks of intense coverage CNN devoted to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 two years ago.

But Mr Zucker is unrepentant. “People know that we’re the place, when a big story happens, that you’re going to get extensive, full coverage,” he says flatly. When one of these stories breaks, such as the recent Orlando shooting massacre, other news will be covered by CNN online, he adds. “We’re still covering all the news that is happening, day in and day out, but that’s on our digital outlets.”

Does that mean that the television screen becomes more about drama and the big moment?

“I don’t want to make it about theatre and drama, because I think there’s a connotation to that makes it feel like it’s frivolous.” He lists recent events covered in depth by CNN, such as the Paris terror attacks and the riots last year in Ferguson and Baltimore, after unarmed black men were killed by police: “I don’t think there’s anything about what happened there that is frivolous or theatre.”

For the past 12 months the US election campaign has dominated CNN and all other US news outlets, with Mr Trump receiving the lion’s share of media attention. This has led to criticism that the Republican candidate is getting too much airtime at the expense of other candidates.

While he worked earlier at NBC, Mr Zucker launched Mr Trump’s television career when he put The Apprentice on the air. He thinks criticism that CNN has given Mr Trump too much airtime is “misplaced”, saying that he always responds to interview requests — unlike the other candidates who competed against Mr Trump in the Republican race for the nomination.

“The fact is that Donald Trump has a mastery of television and media that few others have, and I think that took a lot of his competitors — and a lot of observers — by surprise, in that they didn’t realise that he understood the medium and was able to take advantage of that.

“He was willing to do numerous interviews in a way that almost none of his competitors was. That’s not our fault, that’s their fault.”

He does not see Mr Trump as much as he often did, saying he talks to him “occasionally . . . and it’s almost always so that he can complain about CNN’s coverage. He tweets pretty often how unhappy he is with our coverage.”

He is more hands on with the production process at CNN than previous chief executives and wanted his office to be off the newsroom rather than in the executive suite.

This reflects a professional career in production, which started in the summer of 1984 when he worked at ABC Sports on its coverage of the Los Angeles Olympics.

He made his name at NBC, where he ran the Today Show, turning the network’s morning slot into a money-spinning force and its hosts, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, into huge stars.

On his watch the programme became more news focused, interspersed with bigger, splashier segments, like outdoor live concerts and weddings, which took place on air. Audiences tuned in by the million, the show becoming a fixture of morning television.

“At the same time that we were bec­oming newsier, we were also becoming more ‘eventised’ and fun,” he says. “I don’t think it’s entirely dissimilar from what we’ve been able to do here, all these years later.”

CNN’s ratings in the US are significantly up but Fox News Channel continues to be the most watched cable news channel: it recently outstripped non-news channels to become the most watched basic cable network in America.

“We have great admiration for Fox News,” he says, diplomatically, speaking before the departure of its chairman and chief executive, Roger Ailes, last week. Then, after a pause: “For what they do, they do a terrific job.”

These days the old guard is under assault from a new generation of digital outlets which are building up from online brands into television.

Vice Media has been backed by some of the biggest names in media, including Walt Disney and 21st Century Fox, and recently launched Viceland, its own cable channel.

Mr Zucker has been openly critical of Vice before and does not hold back. “I think that they are a bunch of hot air that’s all about marketing and that has pulled the wool over a lot of eyes. And with very little real numbers to back it up.”

Vice has built a business on attracting millennial viewers who may have been turned off by traditional television news. Mr Zucker disagrees with the premise that young people want news to be presented differently on television or online.

“What I buy is that young people want news, and you know where young people are getting it from? CNN.”

The network has invested in digital, he says, hiring a net 150 people. “The New York Times is laying off people, Al Jazeera America’s shutting down, Mashable laid off its entire news organisation. So this is a place where we’re going the other way. We’re investing, and we’re hiring.”

Mr Zucker has suffered a series of health problems, including two bouts of colon cancer, heart disease, skin cancer and Bell’s palsy. Yet his love of working in television remains undiminished.

“I’m incredibly content,” he says. “Being at the intersection of television, news, and the digital revolution is exactly where I want to be.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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