CNN chief Jeff Zucker keeps his network on a breaking news course in the wake of Irma

CNN chief Jeff Zucker keeps his network on a breaking news course in the wake of Irma

CNN “New Day” anchor Chris Cuomo admits that standing outside in a storm as powerful as Hurricane Irma requires some rationalization.

“It’s arguably a stupid thing to do,” he said this week on the phone from Naples, Fla., where he and his crew spent several nights living out of a minivan while reporting for the cable network. “But we do it for a reason.”

Cuomo was among the anchors and correspondents willing to take the risks necessary to inform the public and emergency responders about the conditions and spread the word on the needs of the victims (CNN had an army of 140 people working on the story). He went a step further by sharing his satellite phone with residents who needed to get in touch with loved ones after the storm.

Such emotional moments helped boost the ratings for all the cable news networks during the storm coverage. Fox News Channel had the most viewers among the news networks. But, aside from the Weather Channel, CNN got the biggest ratings boost for the week that ended Sept. 10, according to Nielsen.

For the duration of the storm from Sept. 6 to 11, CNN averaged 1.47 million viewers, a 69% jump from its average for the previous four weeks, according to Nielsen. Fox News had 1.76 million viewers, a 28% jump; while MSNBC had 1.13 million, an increase of 12%. In the 25-to-54 category, the age group that advertisers value most in news programming, CNN was up 89% and ranked first in the category during for five straight days, the longest such streak the Time Warner-owned channel has had since 2001.

The ratings surge is a reminder that many viewers are still in the habit of going to CNN in a time of crisis, underscoring its commitment to devoting resources to breaking news around the world over 37 years.

“CNN was a natural place for all those viewers to flock to, given that the brand remains incredibly strong and the place for major news,” CNN President Jeff Zucker said in an interview.

The question is whether CNN can hold on to those viewers when the intensity of a news story subsides. It has become more of an imperative lately as MSNBC has made major gains in ratings after several years of running a distant third behind Fox News and CNN. MSNBC has picked up viewers during the day with its breaking news coverage while leading CNN on most weeknights when its politically left-leaning hosts are on.

Zucker said he does not see a need to change course, noting that his network still leads MSNBC in the 25-to-54 category year-to-date in prime time.

But the competition is gaining ground. MSNBC has been powered to its best numbers ever thanks to the emergence of Rachel Maddow as the voice of the anti-Trump movement. She is now the most-watched host on cable news among the 25-to-54 demographic.

The audience for first-place Fox News is so loyal, the network’s ratings have withstood several major changes in personnel including the loss of marquee anchor Bill O’Reilly, who was fired in April amid a sexual harassment scandal at the network. Even with the lineup shifts, Fox News viewers know they can rely on the channel to hear a robust defense of President Trump’s policies from its commentators.

Zucker notes that his network is running ahead of its record ratings year of 2016 on the strength of its breaking news coverage, which he believes is what viewers still look for from the channel.

“If you think about the last five or six weeks there has been a tremendous run of big stories with what’s happened in Charlottesville, what’s happened in North Korea and what happened with Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida,” he said. “The fact is audiences have been incredibly strong for CNN all year.”

CNN remains ahead of NBCUniversal-owned channel MSNBC among 25- to 54-year-olds and is having the best year in its history in the category.

Although it does not matter to advertisers, MSNBC has the bragging rights of being ahead of CNN among all viewers over the full day in 2017, for the first time ever. NBC News, which runs the channel, believes the milestone is viewers’ recognition that MSNBC is more than a political talk outlet.

“Over the past six months, more viewers have watched breaking news during the day on MSNBC than on CNN,” an NBC News spokesperson said. “That’s a seismic shift that was almost unimaginable two years ago when MSNBC changed its daytime product from opinion shows to live, breaking news coverage in collaboration with NBC News.”

Even with the pressure from MSNBC, Zucker said he has no plans to shake up his prime-time lineup to try to take on Maddow in the 9 p.m. Eastern hour. CNN currently has Anderson Cooper anchoring the time slot on most nights.

“We’re incredibly happy with our schedule,” Zucker said. “We don’t have this need to win every hour. We have this need to report and service our audiences on television and in digital.”

CNN’s ratings and its digital growth have it on track to take in $1.1 billion in profit this year, a strong financial performance that comes at a time of pending transition. AT&T’s deal to acquire CNN parent company Time Warner is expected to be approved in the next few weeks. It has led to speculation about whether the company is willing to deal with the headaches that come with being in the news business and whether it wants Zucker at the helm of the network. Trump, who became a reality TV star at NBC under Zucker’s watch at the network, often complains about CNN’s aggressive coverage of his administration.

Zucker declined to comment on the AT&T deal, and would not confirm whether new management had called to praise the hurricane coverage and the service it provided to viewers.

As far as the criticism from the White House, Zucker said CNN’s internal research continues to show the “fake news” narrative pushed by the White House has had no effect on public perception, even prior to its coverage of Irma.

“There is no evidence any of those silly attacks by the Trump White House were having any effect whatsoever,” Zucker said. “There is strong evidence it was working to the contrary given our audience levels.”

One unexpected side benefit generated from Cuomo’s Irma coverage is the social media attention he received for the tight T-shirts he wore on camera. He good-naturedly insisted the wardrobe choice was not an attempt to generate viewer interest.

“My T-shirts are all XL,” said the anchor, who stands 6 feet 2 and weighs 220 pounds. “I wear black because it hides the sweat. The idea of my wearing an intentionally tight shirt is demonstrably false.”