This Is Jeff Zucker's CNN Overhaul

The Atlantic

As news arrives today that some of its most familiar (and familiarly loud) faces are on the way out and some new (and potentially household-name) anchors may be on the way in, the future of CNN is starting to take shape under its powerful new boss, Jeff Zucker. And that future, if you add up the embers and the rumblings, is starting to look less and less like the competition. While we're still a few weeks away from his final lineup, make now mistake: The skeleton of a network's new identity is coming together quickly, and CNN, where disaster and not much else had ruled the day, might soon try to be not so much a Fox chaser or the anti-MSNBC so much as a star factory start-up climbing out of survival mode with a complete revamp. Here's what that might look like — no Sarah Palin allowed. 

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Pundits: Will They Go By the Wayside?

Competition: Wonky bloggers and Michael Steele (MSNBC); the 2012 presidential clown car and Karl Rove (Fox)

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Now: Conservative Erick Erickson is out, and reports say pundit power couple Mary Matalin and John Carville will be departing CNN as well. So, yeah, that's lot of polarizing views out the window and there isn't any word on whether or how they will be replaced. If you got sick of CNN's otherwise fantastic election coverage getting tossed over to that table full of people over there, the formula of "ask a pundit what this all means" just lost a lot of its meat.

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Next: It remains unclear whether DC veterans and repurposed anchors will find a second life anymore. Zucker does have an entire international news organization at his disposal, after all — Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper have been devoting more and more segments to field reporting — and he knows from his past how to balance soft news with the force of NBC News correspondents. Let's just say you might be seeing a lot more magic wall than crotchety old Arkansas political savant.

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Mornings: Will They Look Like Today?

Perhaps the biggest chunk of programming time that Zucker is immediately qualified to overhaul is the 7-9 a.m. block. But can the wunderkind executive producer who made the Today show into a money-making machine become the executive who puts CNN back on the early-morning map? If his foray into the upper ranks of NBC are any indication — well, that was mostly a primetime problem. But he's fresh off running Katie Couric's new syndicated show, and this is his bread and butter.

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Competition: Morning Joe (MSNBC); Fox & Friends (Fox)

Now: Soledad O'Brien is holding down the morning fort by herself, sharing a table with a revolving carousel of guests. Which can be occasionally more illuminating than the couch antics on Fox or the the pundit hall of fame over at MSNBC, but at least Morning Joe has the (occasionally contentious) banter between Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, which can be a nice eye-opener for the smart set. We haven't seen O'Brien joined by a formal co-host (and, no, John Sununu doesn't count) since CNN split up her American Morning show into Early Start and her current gig on Starting Point in 2011. But based on the rumblings since Zucker's appointment, it appears that O'Brien might be too much of a star for a morning pair, which could lead to...

Next: The young pair of the future. Zucker said in a statement today that he's hired away Chris Cuomo from ABC's 20/20 and that Cuomo will "have a major role in a new CNN morning show and across the network, anchoring and reporting on major events." As the former news-desk guy on Good Morning America, he could be a Matt Lauer in Zucker's eyes. Multiple reports suggest that Erin Burnett could revive her AM charm from her pre-CNN days as the friendly face from Wall Street on Morning Joe segments by joining Cuomo and switching over to...

Primetime: Will CNN Be Above the Competition?

The pressure is still on CNN to catch Fox and MSNBC in the ratings race. But maybe they won't keep chasing so much as one-upping. MSNBC caught up to Fox in large part by counter-programming its partisan heroes with lefty versions of its own — Ed Schultz vs. O'Reilly, Maddow vs. Hannity, and so on. But Zucker is a star-maker, not a rating match-maker.

The way Fox and MSNBC got there of course, is well-known at this point: be partisan and counter-program. If CNN isn't pursuing pundits, then they're going to have to rely on what they have to fill in Burnett's spot which is a really well-liked Soledad O'Brien. There have been rumors they're trying (unsuccessfully) to lure Ann Curry away from NBC too—go with either one and you have a host thats, yes, female, but also one that's more respected for her journalism chops than she is for her punditry. And someone that's a lot less polarizing than Piers Morgan.

Competition: Hardball with Chris Matthews (repeat), The Ed Show, The Rachel Maddow Show, The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell (MSNBC); Fox Report with Shepard Smith, The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity, On the Record with Greta (Fox)

Now: Trusting so much key airtime to Burnett seems to have been a big crash and burn for Zucker's predecessor, and the only other big CNN primetime swap of late has been Piers Morgan. And despite his polarizing status since the Newtown shootings, he's proving that an outspoken — and humanized — star can get a lot more attention than, you know, that old alien Larry King.

Next: Burnett's ratings are neither here nor there, and the morning pairing makes sense — she and O'Brien could essential flip spots. There's talk that Anderson Cooper could get more of a roving-correspondent role — he's been seen on daytime breaking-news coverage more and more this year already — and new hire Jake Tapper could do the same. That would seem to leave one if two spots wide open. There are mounting reports that old Zucker fave Ann Curry is being made to feel at home, and her star always shined brighter on newsmagazine-type shows than on a morning free-for-all. If she took Cooper's repeat spot at 10 p.m., that would seem to open up one more spot for a Zucker gamble in the making. In other words: O'Reilly, get ready for one last multi-million-dollar splash of competition in the cable-news pool.

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