NEW YORK – Jake Tapper’s mission before starting his new CNN show has been to make sure people know that he’s more than a political wonk.
That’s why he talks about his love for comic books and the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies in promotions CNN is running for “The Lead,” which made its debut at 4 p.m. Monday. The former ABC News White House correspondent wants his show to touch on business, sports, entertainment and international affairs along with major national news.
Tapper had been discussing a move to CNN before Jeff Zucker took over as the network’s boss in January, and the leadership change gave him an ally in his plans for an expansive newscast.
“That pitch was not embraced by everyone I was talking to at first,” the 44-year-old Tapper said. “I think they wanted more of a political show. Then Zucker came aboard and, I think independent of me, said he wanted to make the show broader.”
His interests are no surprise to followers of his Twitter feed, where he’ll recommend books and other TV shows or, as he did recently, tweet out the video for the Geto Boys’ “Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta.” (“That’s G-E-T-O,” Tapper says helpfully to a reporter he presumes is hip-hip illiterate.)
Tapper had reached a ceiling at ABC, where he frequently substituted as guest host of “This Week” but didn’t get the permanent job. His contract ended with the presidential term and he, with fellow ABC expatriate Chris Cuomo, are the new faces of CNN in the Zucker era.
Another newcomer to CNN, Federico Quadrani, left MSNBC for the job of Tapper’s top producer.
“The Lead” won’t hesitate to cover live events for major stories. But Quadrani said the intention is to make the show a distinct broadcast that seeks unique angles to stories and hopes to be an agenda-setter for the nighttime cable talk show. And he hopes to have some fun, too.
“He can walk that line,” he said. “He can inform and entertain at the same time.”
His cable news competition at that hour is Neil Cavuto, who hosts a business-oriented hour on Fox News Channel. Another former hand at ABC, Martin Bashir, has a politically liberal show on MSNBC.
Zucker, the “Today” show producer during that show’s 1990s glory years, has been involved in the show’s development, checking out the format and the graphics, Tapper said. The debut is a big moment for Zucker, too. The first new show on his watch will likely be looked at closely for clues on the executive’s vision of CNN.
“That puts a huge target on our back,” Tapper said.
He’s comfortable that he shares a news sensibility with his new boss.
“Here are the things I know about Jeff Zucker and who he is and what he wants to do,” he said. “He’s competitive. He wants to win. He wants CNN to be excellent. There is a whole world of people out there who want CNN to be great and he wants CNN to be great for those people.”