CNN chief Jeff Zucker dug in at the metaphorical batter’s box Thursday, knowing that some off-speed pitches were coming but coolly getting some wood on each one. The key reason he didn’t seem flustered, even though it took time away from the ostensible point of the gathering, was that the questions had little to do with CNN.
Zucker was leading a promotional effort for the upcoming primetime original series The Wonder List With Bill Weir to a roomful of journalists. Normally that’s a routine task but this was a group immersed in a news cycle marked by the sudden death of 60 Minutes mainstay Bob Simon, the suspension of NBC anchor Brian Williams and the retirement announcement by Jon Stewart.
On Stewart: “We’d love to have him at CNN. I don’t think it’s in the cards.”
On Williams: “Incredibly sad and disappointing.”
On Simon: “There’s nobody better ... It’s incomprehensible.”
While Weir was also at the lunch table and got plenty of time to bang the drum for the globetrotting adventure show, he also knew the preoccupations in the room. He gamely recounted auditioning for the Daily Show anchor job that went to Stewart in 1999. “He was a finalist,” put in Zucker.
The Wonder List, which premieres March 1, has multiple meanings in its title. In part it is about Weir pondering the pace of global change, and in part it evokes the wonders of the world and a kind of Terrence Malick-esque cinematic aesthetic. (Philip Bloom, a noted filmmaker, spearheaded the show’s look and rode along with Weir.) In keeping with CNN’s anchor tenant, Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain, the show visits far-flung spots, from Vanuatu to Venice to the Greek Islands to India, spending the hour getting to know the local culture and examining how it is changing.
“It was a little bit of an ice bath to take off the tie and walk out of the TV studio after being on for 23 years,” mused Weir, who moved to CNN last fall after a decade at ABC News. “My grandparents lived from the Wright Bros. to the space shuttle. That’s a lot of change. I wonder what my kid will see. Or a fisherman or a farmer.”
The Wonder List is one of a projected 12 original series set to premiere in 2015. It is owned by CNN and its international feel will lend itself to sales around the world a la the Discovery doc model. Unlike some scrutinized series on Discovery, it plans to tackle climate change directly. Though Weir offered that the term is “so loaded politically right now, and we want people to be clear that this is a hopeful series, and a series about innovation for the best way forward.”
Despite CNN’s 24-hour appetite for breaking coverage, originals have seldom been pre-empted during the 18 months they have been airing, Zucker said. “We wrung our hands and that was our No. 1 concern” going in, Zucker said. Especially with enhanced digital extensions, he added, “we are covering everything, whether or not it’s on the air.”