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CNN Picks a New Boss: Will It Be Saved, or Has it Been Zuckered?

Despite a decade of bad decisions while he ran NBC, Jeff Zucker has real strengths as a TV executive. They just don't look like the ones CNN needs right now.

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Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Jeff Zucker testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Communications, Technology and the Internet Subcommittee hearing on "An Examination of the Proposed Combination of Comcast and NBC Universal" on February 4, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The knock against Jeff Zucker for the last several years is that he has failed upward. Since he took over NBC entertainment in 2000, it seemed that every time the network’s woes got worse, he would get a promotion, until he ran the entire company before leaving with the Comcast takeover last year. (In the meantime, he’s been producing Katie Couric‘s new talk show.)

One could argue that Zucker’s latest career move—being named president of CNN Worldwide—is not failing upward, if only by virtue of the fact that CNN’s flagship channel has so often been coming last in the cable-news ratings lately. It is perhaps, failing laterally—or preferably succeeding, as CNN hopes that the former Today show producer can restore prestige, relevance and ratings to its marquee channel, while keeping CNN a very profitable news brand worldwide. (CNN, I should declare here, is TIME’s sister company in Time Warner.)

Do I think this is a good idea? I do not. But I don’t think it’s an entirely insane one either. And while I don’t see Zucker as the best guy to fix CNN’s woes, it’s not for the first reason that might come to mind.

That reason would be the fact that Zucker, in the decade that he ran NBC and its entertainment division, all but destroyed the network. It’s an ugly, well-covered story. He took over a network that was first place in the primetime ratings and left it in fourth. There were many reasons, and he had help—remember Ben Silverman, patron of the Knight Rider remake?—but the long and short of is NBC once had a lot of hits and Zucker did not show great ability for creating new ones.

He inherited Friends; he gave us Joey. He gave us a sitcom built around Emeril Lagasse. He brought in Fear Factor, supersized his primetime sitcoms and choreographed the Conan O’Brien / Jay Leno slow-motion disaster. You could have excused his business failures with creative triumphs, or rationalized creative failures with business triumphs, but he had little of either kind of good news to show. (NBC’s best-quality shows of the 2000s, like The Office and Friday Night Lights, came after he relinquished the programming job.)

That said, Zucker is not going to CNN to create sitcoms. (I think! Though I admit my first snarky reaction to the news was to create the #ZuckerCNNShows hashtag on Twitter.) It’s a news network, and Zucker started out in news—that is, at least, what the Today show technically qualifies as. And while Zucker ran Today, it dominated; he had a reputation for being aggressive, quick to think on the fly and talented at managing talent and egos.

And whatever Zucker’s flubs as a programmer he also had a sharp mind for the larger TV business and how it was changing from the old three-network model. He didn’t do well with NBC the network, but NBC Universal the cable empire—Bravo, USA et al.—grew impressively while he ran it. I interviewed Zucker several times over the years, and I could always count on him for insights on how broadcast networks were challenged today—by a fragmented audience, by cable competition, by technological changes like the DVR and so on.

In a way, The Jay Leno Show was the perfect example of Zucker’s strengths and fatal flaws. His diagnosis of NBC’s problems at the time was actually dead on: fewer people were watching expensive 10 p.m. dramas, audiences were shrinking for all big the biggest live-TV events and broadcasters had to figure out a way to make these smaller numbers add up. Zucker correctly diagnosed a dilemma: big TV networks, like all big media, had to learn to adapt to the era of their diminishment.

The Jay Leno Show was just a terrible solution to the problem. I wrote a TIME cover story before the show debuted; the cover line, which called Leno “the future of TV,” took a lot of ribbing after the show tanked. But I stand by that in the general sense that I meant it: that the show, as a programming move, exemplified a future of TV  in which broadcast networks would have to rely a lot more on cheaper and nonscripted shows. Fast forward to 2012, post-Zucker, and NBC has had a strong season so far, largely thanks to several hours of unscripted primetime TV—it just happens to be The Voice, not Leno.

When you look at Zucker’s career at NBC, his great triumphs were of tactics, not strategy. He knew well how to leverage hits someone else had created—the supersizing, the expansion of the Today show. But when it came to creating hits—well, you got The Jay Leno Show. You never got the sense with Zucker that he had a gut as a programmer, a vision of what NBC should be.

Which brings us to CNN. Whether Zucker is the right choice depends what you think CNN’s problems and needs are. Does it need tweaking, better scheduling, someone to boost morale and manage on-air talent? Then maybe Zucker’s your guy.

But that’s not what CNN needs. Its problems are both smaller and bigger. On the one hand, as an international brand, it’s hugely profitable just by dint of being the established brand people want to turn to on air, in hotels and in airport lounges. On the other, for its American channel’s ratings and relevance—which it has admitted are problems—it needs to think about what it is. It needs vision, purpose, a strong sense of mission, all of which requires not just sharp business sense but imagination.

CNN is proud of being nonpartisan, and makes a point that it doesn’t take sides like Fox or MSNBC. Problem is, you can’t define a strong network just by what it isn’t. And too often that’s been CNN’s approach: it still has great reach and strong reporting when it matters. But day to day it seems too driven by being the network that doesn’t bother anyone. There’s too much smileyness in its daytime programming, too much reflexive blandness on shows like Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room. CNN’s nonverbal message, too often, is “please don’t get mad at us.”

My answer to this would be to dedicate CNN to being aggressive and serious, a guide for viewers willing to call out B.S. even if it sometimes means telling one side in an argument that it’s wrong. (Anderson Cooper, to his credit, does this; as occasionally has Piers Morgan, with his pugilistic gun-control interviews after the Dark Knight shootings this summer.) I wrote a column on this in 2010, and it still holds: “Viewers want someone to cut through the kicked-up partisan dust. They want to hear, flat out, when someone is full of it.”

But then I’m a TV critic–my job isn’t to worry about what will get good ratings. What’s Zucker’s answer? “I’ve been here for an hour,” he demurred on a conference call announcing his appointment today. But he did sound a couple of themes repeatedly—wanting CNN to be “exciting” and to “broaden the definition of what news is.”

Those are the kind of aims that, depending what Zucker actually means, could be very invigorating or very horrible. (More documentary-style shows like the one Anthony Bourdain will be doing? Or Apprentice-style Presidential debates in the Boardroom?) After three decades, CNN now has to hope that the guy who gave us The Jay Leno Show will make the right choice this time.