Guess who’s making a comeback in 2016? Less than four years ago, the once-dominant CNN had turned in desperation to former NBC head Jeff Zucker to make the network more competitive with Fox News. After retooling the schedule and the talent, CNN has suddenly vaulted into a competitive position for the ratings lead. The Wall Street Journal’s Keach Hagey and Nick Niedzwiadek asked Zucker what had changed, and he offered a surprising response (via Mediaite):

Since the start of the year, when the primary season began in earnest, CNN’s prime-time audience has more than doubled to 435,000 viewers a night in its target demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds, according to Nielsen.

After years of weak ratings, the network is nipping at the heels of Fox News, the longtime ratings leader in cable news, whose prime-time audience has grown 42% to 450,000 viewers, and is roughly doubling the audience of MSNBC, the weakest of the three major cable news channels. which is up 73% at 225,000. …

Mr. Zucker says CNN is benefiting disproportionately from the election race because he repositioned it to appeal to Republicans and Democrats alike. He added that compelling stories on both sides of the race— Donald Trump’s unconventional bid for the White House and Bernie Sanders’s unexpectedly strong challenge to Hillary Clinton—have helped the network showcase its more even-handed approach.

“I think it was a legitimate criticism of CNN that it was a little too liberal,” Mr. Zucker said. “We have added many more middle-of-the-road conservative voices to an already strong stable of liberal voices. And I think that we are a much more-balanced network and, as a result, a much more inviting network to a segment of the audience that might not have otherwise been willing to come here.”

No kidding! But to be fair, things have improved at CNN since Zucker’s arrival. Not too long after Candy Crowley inserted herself into a presidential debate and ended up with egg on her face for rebuking Romney (and being in error to boot), they grabbed Jake Tapper and eventually made him their Sunday-morning face for politics. He’s also ahead of the news cycle on weekday afternoons, setting up their prime-time lineup with hard news fairly presented. That change alone seems to have worked wonders for the entire network. They also got rid of Soledad O’Brien, Piers Morgan, and the aforementioned Crowley, albeit after taking their sweet time. By November 2015, they had even begun cracking down on editorializing by their reporters on Twitter — which actually seemed a little excessive at the time.

The biggest change came with the presidential debates. CNN announced last year that they would partner with conservative media on Republican debates, and Salem’s Hugh Hewitt* ended up on four of the panels. That gave their presentations balance as well as an entrée to conservative viewers, who seem to have stuck around. Zucker should send a magnum of champagne to Hugh.

What makes this change even more interesting is that it cut against expectations. Most guessed that Zucker would take CNN more in the direction of the kind of point-of-view journalism that had worked for MSNBC, at least for a while. Barack Obama had just won re-election convincingly, and while the honeymoon had long been over for hope and change, the dominance of Fox News also made it look as though the sun had set on the claim of objectivity. Instead of running to the left to take advantage of Obama’s second presidential honeymoon, Zucker stuck to the strategy of plowing a path down the middle between Fox and MSNBC.

And one final thought about that seems worth pointing out, too. Fox is widely perceived as the conservative network (although they have long included diverse points of view from contributors), and CNN now has steered a course down the middle. The two are duking it out for cable-news dominance, with progressive MSNBC trailing far behind. MSNBC has moved its daytime programming more toward hard news and dumped some of its progressive talent, and they have succeeded in building a bigger audience; the WSJ reports that their daytime share has doubled. How much longer will Comcast and NBC News hang onto its failing prime-time model of progressive cheerleading in light of CNN’s resurgence?

* – Full disclosure: Hugh’s a friend, and Hot Air is owned by Salem through its Townhall Media Group subsidiary.