Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes struck first, saying in an interview published this week that it was interesting for CNN "to throw in the towel and announce they're out of the news business." It was a reference to CNN President Jeff Zucker's efforts to expand CNN's offerings beyond breaking news.
"We happen to be in the business, as opposed to some other fair and balanced network," Zucker responded at a news conference on Friday.
He suggested that Ailes' remarks, published in the Hollywood Reporter, were silly and an attempt to deflect attention from "The Loudest Voice in the Room," a book on Ailes and Fox by New York magazine writer Gabriel Sherman that is being published this month.
Zucker said he hadn't read the book, but that from what he heard it confirmed that "the Republican Party is being run out of News Corp. headquarters masquerading as a cable news channel."
A Fox News spokeswoman said that Ailes gave his Hollywood Reporter interview in December, suggesting it had nothing to do with Sherman's book. She had no other comment on what Zucker said during a meeting with journalists who cover television on Friday.
Zucker, in charge at CNN for a year now, has taken note of flat ratings in pushing CNN to diversify. Non-fiction shows with chef Anthony Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock, ordered before Zucker came to CNN, are consistently among the networks' highest-rated shows. CNN has also beefed up its documentary film unit.
The films drew some barbs from Ailes, as well, particularly the successful "Blackfish," about killer whales. "I guess he's going to do whales a lot," Ailes said. "If I were Discovery, I'd be worried."
Zucker said CNN had several other new non-fiction series in the works. In March, CNN will premiere "Death Row Stories," a crime series produced by Robert Redford and Alex Gibney and narrated by Susan Sarandon. CNN is also continuing its concentration on the 1960s with a 10-part series beginning in May. Later this month, CNN will air "The Sixties: The British Invasion" in the days before the 50th anniversary of the Beatles performing on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Despite such efforts, Zucker said CNN's first priority remains news. A succession of CNN leaders over the past two decades have struggled to figure out how CNN could get a consistent audience during slow news periods. Fox and MSNBC, which appeal heavily to audiences on opposite ends of the political spectrum, have taken viewers away from CNN.
"CNN is not and never will abandon our first and fundamental brand equity, which is news and breaking news," Zucker said.
He also shot down reports that CNN is looking to get into the late-night entertainment business, perhaps by hiring Jay Leno when Jimmy Fallon takes over on NBC's "Tonight" show next month. Zucker was once Leno's boss when he was head of NBC Universal.
"That's really not a priority for us at this time," he said. "We have some other things I'd like to concentrate on first."