Despite reports that Zucker, the former head of NBCUniversal and current leader of Time Warner’s CNN, has emerged as a surprise candidate to lead Walt Disney’s ESPN, a spokesperson for CNN tells Variety he isn’t going anywhere.
“Jeff loves his job at CNN and has no interest in running ESPN,” said the spokesperson.
Rumors began circulating this week in media circles that the TV executive who first rose to greater renown by boosting the fortunes of NBC’s “Today” show could be in consideration to replace John Skipper at Disney’s massive sports-media juggernaut. Skipper left ESPN late last year, citing a substance-addiction problem. Disney CEO Robert Iger is said to be leading the search for a new chief at ESPN.
Running CNN is a heady job, and Zucker has boosted performance at the cable-news outlet since his arrived there in 2013. He has pushed the company full-bore into digital and mobile, hiring dozens of new employees to write online columns and newsletters, and host podcasts. And he has lent CNN – often criticized in the past for its down-the-middle plain-vanilla presentation of breaking news – a new, aggressive sheen. CNN has broken big stories on the Trump administration and followed the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The moves have spurred adverse reaction to the network by strong Trump supporters, who cast CNN as an enemy of the president. Indeed, President Trump has on occasion posted snippets of video on Twitter showing CNN getting beaten up in one form or another.
Top Time Warner executives are not necessarily bound to stay with the media conglomerate as it works its way toward a merger with AT&T, according to a person familiar with the matter. The telecommunications giant agreed to buy Time Warner for $85 billion last year, but has been drawn into what could be a protracted court case after the U.S. Department of Justice sued to block the tie-up from taking place. Zucker is believed to in 2016 have signed a new deal to stay at CNN, three years after he started at the news organization. Since that time, several of CNN’s top anchors have renewed contracts as well.
ESPN would present new challenges to any executive who seized its reins. While it dominates rival sports outlets owned by CBS, 21st Century Fox and NBCUniversal, ESPN has been losing subscribers as more consumers move to digital outlets to gain access to video entertainment. ESPN has also suffered as political remarks made in social media by several of its top personalities and hosts have drawn notice and polarized its audience. But the network is in the midst of moving into the future as well. It is launching a new business: Its “ESPN Plus,” a direct-to-consumer streaming service, is slated to launch in coming months.