With CNN enjoying a ratings resurgence, the cable-news rumor mill is in full churn, suggesting that the next phase of Jeff Zucker's master plan is to ditch Wolf Blitzer and sprinkle the network with more hunky young anchors in the mold of Jake Tapper and Chris Cuomo. With MSNBC in full-on self-defensive swoon mode, can the liberal darling avoid "destruction" by going on a Magic Mike hiring spree of its own?
First off, let's acknowledge that "hunky" in the rumor-mongering parlance of TV news anchors is all relative; Jake Tapper is not exactly Jon Hamm. But the New York Daily News gossip team reported on Sunday that "studly Chris Cuomo and handsome Jake Tapper" were very much at the center of the network's hiring strategy, and for more than just their news chops. "The decision has been made that people want to look at beautiful people, and although Wolf is no beast, they're thinking younger," the Daily News team wrote, connecting the people's penchant for hunk salad to a reduction in airtime for Blitzer, the 23-year CNN veteran. The bearded one has already seen an hour cut out of The Situation Room to make room for Tapper's The Lead, and Blitzer's co-anchor, Kate Bolduan, was tapped to pair with Cuomo on New Day, the revamped CNN morning show that debuts next Monday. "Oh course they want journalists with great credentials," the Daily News's source said, "but they also want reporters with a face, and body, for TV — not radio." The source said pretty categorically: that "Wolf is going to be gradually phased out and replaced with a younger, hipper host."
The launch of the pretty New Day team and a flurry of anti-MSNBC reports could have led to a leaker going a little over-the-top in the Daily News report, of course, and CNN pushed back on Sunday afternoon, telling The Huffington Post that "The 'CNN insider' must not be watching CNN air. Wolf has been anchoring additional hours as of late." That's largely because there have been major developing breaking-news stories of late, with CNN's persistent coverage of the Boston bombings, extreme weather, and more bringing out the faces of the network at all hours — including Cuomo, who was on-camera for much of the Chris Dorner manhunt when he first arrived at the network and was almost as visible as Blitzer during key moments of the marathon investigation. And that's translated into a second straight monthly win over MSNBC in the great CNN ratings comeback of 2013: The network's May Nielsens were up big from last year's terrible numbers, bringing in 70 percent more viewers in primetime and 97 percent more in the coveted 25-54 demographic, Deadline's Dominic Patten reported. Tapper's show is on the rebound after a troublesome first month in Blitzer's old 4 p.m. hour.
So is the drumbeat of big breaking news and big hunky anchors the new winning strategy for cable? It sure sounds like the opposite of MSNBC's strategy, which The New York Times's Bill Carter amounts to a doubling down on political analysis, while keeping the walls from falling in during stretches of big breaking stories. "The explanation, in the network's own analysis, comes down to this: breaking news is not really what MSNBC does," Carter writes. MSNBC boss Phil Griffin added, of breaking news: "We're not the place for that ... Our brand is not that." Griffin adds, "I tip my hat to what CNN has done this month, but let's not be so myopic as to think the whole world has changed."
And, sure, Rachel Maddow's coverage of the Moore tornado was as strong as the 24-hour tornado cams on CNN, the network that bungled the Boston suspect "arrest" so badly. But young geek Chris Hayes hasn't exactly been working ratings magic with his 30-percent drop since taking over at 8 o'clock, and he's kind of just flailing all along up there. "MSNBC does not have a full roster of its own correspondents," Carter writes, perhaps leaving the door open for some new faces at a network that relies so heavily on NBC News reporters, Chuck Todd's goatee included. Somewhere, Wolf Blitzer's beard just got better looking.