Jeff Zucker, the leader of cable-news outlet CNN, is about to add sports to his portfolio, giving him expanded oversight of more of the most valuable content in today’s media landscape – live programming.
Zucker is expected to head AT&T’s Turner Sports, according to three people familiar with the matter, broadening his influence at the telecom giant as it moves quickly to re-organize WarnerMedia, the media conglomerate it purchased in June for $81 billion. David Levy, the president of Turner, had supervision of its sports properties, but has decided to leave after he and AT&T could not come to terms on a new role at WarnerMedia.
A WarnerMedia spokesman declined to comment, and a spokeswoman for Zucker could not be reached for immediate comment. The Wall Street Journal previously reported Zucker’s new duties. He would continue to lead CNN.
The sports job is an important one at AT&T. WarnerMedia’s Turner group enjoys a very close relationship with the National Basketball Association, worked with WME/IMG to start an e-sports league, and shares broadcast rights for the popular annual NCAA men’s basketball championship with CBS Corp. Turner’s NBA broadcasts alone generate millions of dollars in advertising revenue and give the unit leverage in its negotiations with cable and satellite broadcasters. Live sports programs have helped traditional media companies keep viewers from skipping past ads and migrating to streaming hubs.
Zucker, who has been an avid tennis player, has long been a sports fan. He tried to bring sports coverage to CNN early in his tenure there, hiring ESPN veteran Rachel Nichols in 2013 to lead CNN’s first sports-news program (a previous sports show, “Sports Tonight,” ran on the now-defunct CNN/SI cable network). But Nichols’ program was often pre-empted by breaking news.
He will face an important caveat: Zucker has no formal experience in sports management, though he did supervise NBC Sports as the head of NBCU.
The new role will extend Zucker’s unique journey in the media industry. He joined the unit once known as Time Warner after enjoying a meteoric rise at NBCUniversal. Starting as a young researcher out of Harvard University, Zucker would move quickly to become a star producer at NBC News; head of the company’s valuable “Today” show; the head of NBC Entertainment; and CEO of NBCUniversal while it was controlled by General Electric. Zucker surprised many observers when he took a job leading CNN after leaving NBCU once it came under Comcast’s control.
It wouldn’t be the first time Zucker has pushed boundaries. He has remade CNN, reorienting the news outlet once known for a vanilla presentation of the news into something with more spice, by doing things like dispatching an in-your-face newscaster, Chris Cuomo, to the network’s 9 p.m. slot. While CNN’s primetime viewership may trail that of leader Fox News Channel, the network has drawn some of its biggest viewership numbers during his tenure.
“It’s remarkable, his willingness to take a position that was two pegs down, and then perform full-throttle non-stop,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who studies CEOs as the senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management. Zucker’s recent work at CNN has given him “the unrivaled loyalty of the CNN newsroom.” Now he will have to bring some of that acumen to bear on a different sector of the media industry.