The state of cable news was one of the topics of discussion at the Promax/BDA conference in New York Wednesday. Former NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker talked with CNN anchor and business correspondent Ali Velshi about the origins of MSNBC’s partisan primetime slant, whether viewers get it, and whether it hurts the NBC News brand. Later, CNN’s Anderson Cooper spoke to “The Early Show’”‘s Erica Hill about his thoughts on Fox News and MSNBC.
“There was not a secret meeting that happened where we said ‘hey let’s go left!’ at MSNBC,” Zucker quipped. “I am sorry to disappoint. What happened, and I think this is pretty well documented now, is that Keith Olbermann emerged, principally with his anti-war viewpoint, and we couldn’t help but notice that. We put a program behind it, and we said ‘wow, flow still works.’ And it all started to work. It was a business decision.”
Zucker said that MSNBC’s primetime lineup does not have any effect on the NBC News brand as a whole, which includes the top broadcast morning show, evening newscast and Sunday show.
“My argument to that is, if it was hurting the brand “Today” wouldn’t continue to be in first place in its 15th year, Brian Williams wouldn’t continue to be in first place, “Meet the Press” would not continue to be the number one Sunday morning program,” Zucker said.
He went on to say that viewers, as a whole “get it,” and know what is news and what is commentary:
“I think the viewer gets it. They understand that CNN offers a very specific kind of reporting that is incredibly important, maybe more than ever. MSNBC offers–in primetime primarily–a particular point of view. Fox News Channel offers a point of view, and I think the viewer understands that.
[Viewers] have so many places where they can get news and information. I think that what is more important than ever in this day and age is brands. CNN stands for something, and I am not just saying that because Ali is sitting here. The peacock at NBC News stands for something. There is 40 years of brand equity there, people have died for that peacock in the coverage of news.
I know that I can believe the peacock and “NBC Nightly News,” and I know that I can believe CNN, and I think that the viewer gets what is across the spectrum.
Meanwhile, Cooper was asked where he sees the rise of partisan cable news hosts leading, and responded by saying that he has little interest in it:
I don’t know where it leads, ultimately I don’t think it leads to a great place. It is interesting to me that when there is a breaking story people turn to CNN, I think because we have worldwide great coverage, but also because they don’t want a slant on it, they just want to know what is happening. As networks become more focused on being partisan, they reduce the number of reporters they have, they reduce their coverage of events, because it is cheaper to just hire someone who yells loud, or is effective at it, or smart and clever at what they are doing. There are lots of people at other networks doing it and they do it very well, but as a viewer it doesn’t interest me.
Like Zucker, he said that he believed viewers are able to tell the difference between hard news, and partisan talking points:
I think viewers are incredibly smart, and don’t need to be separated in terms of what they are being told. I always find it odd that a conservative network will focus on just the stuff that is damaging to the other side, but not be critical of their own side, and the same thing with the liberal network often. I am much more interested in trying to figure out what is true and what is not, and focusing on that.