CNN Could Face New Era Without Jeff Zucker

Analysis: Parting ways with the CNN news chief would put WarnerMedia in need of a new leader as news competitors have been making moves to expand.

CNN Under microscope Illustration
Morgan Ramberg for Variety

Jason Kilar sat in a darkened conference room in 2007, telling anyone who came to visit about the wonders of a new video-on-demand service called Hulu. Kilar was the outlet’s first CEO, and the room in which he was perched stood in the headquarters of NBCUniversal, one of Hulu’s two original co-owners. Another worker in that building was Jeff Zucker, then the CEO of NBCU, and someone who helped spur Kilar’s early journey.

Now it is Kilar who may have influence on Zucker’s future steps.

After losing the NBCU job once Comcast took control of that company, Zucker has blazed a new path for himself as president of WarnerMedia’s CNN. Since taking the reins of the venerable cable-news outlet in 2013, Zucker has given the once-vanilla dispenser of breaking news an entirely new image and mission. Larry King, who held forth at 9 p.m. on CNN  for a quarter of a century with genial celebrity interviews, would never fit in the network’s modern lineup, where that time slot is reserved for the pugnacious Chris Cuomo, CNN’s most-watched personality. CNN has quickly become something that doesn’t just report, but holds people accountable. Some might even say it crusades.  In seven years, Zucker has become as critical an element of CNN’s DNA as Ted Turner, the guy who built the thing in the first place.

The executives who installed Zucker at CNN, however, are no longer in charge of the company.

Jason Kilar became CEO of WarnerMedia in May, the latest in a revolving-door whirl at the media giant after it was purchased by AT&T for $85 billion in 2018. And there are growing signs, according to three people familiar with parts of the business, that the relationship between Zucker and Kilar has begun to grow strained. These people say Zucker feels strongly about how CNN ought to be managed, and has been ambivalent in recent weeks when asked if he intends to continue at CNN long beyond 2020, after the dust settles from the next presidential election. He has yet to decide on whether he might stay or go, some of these people note.

Spokespersons from CNN and WarnerMedia did not respond to queries seeking comment on Zucker’s status with the company.  The Information and The Wall Street Journal previously reported on the potential for Zucker to leave CNN in coming months.

There is some speculation that WarnerMedia would like Zucker to at least run Turner Sports, which he was given oversight of in March of last year. But that job may be too limiting for an executive who once managed a massive conglomerate of TV networks and a movie studio.

AT&T is grappling with a massive amount of debt, and under those conditions, it is difficult to envision the company making the kind of multi-billion-dollar outlays required to broaden its sports- rights portfolio. When he got the sports job, Zucker told Variety that WarnerMedia “will certainly continue to be a significant player in the sports-rights arena.” Under his aegis, Turner Sports renewed its deal with Major League Baseball that gives it better games — at a cost estimated to be around $535 million per year. It also made plans to create new programming around baseball coverage, struck a broad talent deal with Shaquille O’Neal, and developed a series of celebrity golf matches that have gained traction with advertisers. Turner is also one of the main media partners of the NBA,  and has grown close to that league’s operations over the years, and holds rights to the NCAA “March Madness” tournament with ViacomCBS.

Besides, it is difficult to imagine Zucker cutting himself off from CNN willingly. When asked last May after being named to the sports role if he would continue to take part in CNN’s daily 9 a.m. news meeting — a ritual of working life there — Zucker told Variety, “Every day.”

Zucker has survived at WarnerMedia in an era when most of its veteran hands have not. Since AT&T bought the company, many of its stewards – HBO’s Richard Plepler, Warner Brothers’ Kevin Tsujihara, Turner’s David Levy, kids-programming chief Christina Miller, ad-sales president Donna Speciale, TNT and TBS programming executive Kevin Reilly – have exited. Peter Roth, the longtime head of Warner’s TV-production efforts, is slated to depart in 2021. Even top executives brought in by AT&T to oversee WarnerMedia efforts have left, like Bob Greenblatt. Kilar, meanwhile, has brought in new people he has worked with in the past, like JP Colaco, the company’s new ad-sales chief, and an early Hulu ally. Under those circumstances, Zucker’s egress would be less of a surprise than a decision to remain.

Changing CNN’s leadership, if it comes to pass, would happen at a moment when news programming has become a more critical piece of media-industry economics. As more viewers migrate to streaming-video services for drama and comedy, live news content represents one of the main ways big U.S. media companies like ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal, Fox, Walt Disney and WarnerMedia can assemble the large, live audiences coveted by their advertisers as well as the cable and satellite distributors that distribute them.

Yet AT&T has placed most of its emphasis at WarnerMedia on launching and expanding its HBO Max streaming-video hub. That hub’s ultimate success remains unknown: AT&T is contending with established competitors like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, as well as rivals’ upstarts, like NBCUniversal’s Peacock and Walt Disney’s Disney Plus, not to mention streaming projects in the offing from ViacomCBS and Discovery.

As it charts that course, however, the company needs the money thrown off by its linear operations. By many accounts, CNN — with its U.S. busines, international presence, affiliate deals with stations and roosts in airports and transportation hubs — generates the bulk of profit among the Warner assets, just as Fox News Channel does for its parent, Fox Corporation. Estimates from the market-research firm Kagan project that CNN will take in $608 million in advertising this year, up 5.2% from the $578 million it captured in 2019 – no small feat in the midst of a global pandemic that has crippled the economy.

Parting ways with Zucker would put CNN in need of a new leader as news competitors have been making moves to expand.

Comcast’s NBCUniversal recently made an effort to challenge CNN overseas, with an international news venture that had to be shelved due to the coronavirus pandemic. A new top executive, Cesar Conde, has aggressively launched a new 7 p.m. news program on CNBC and pursued a town-hall with President Trump opposite an ABC News special with Democratic challenger Joe Biden despite generating strong and immediate backlash. Fox News Channel has launched a direct-to-consumer version for overseas audiences. CBS News, ABC News and NBC News all have free streaming-news outlets up and running that offer different programing from their TV services – one way to get around the battle those companies might have with stations or MSNBC cable affiliates if the bulk of their TV content was distributed in similar fashion.

And a Zucker departure could ruffle some members of CNN’s staff, who have seen their presence and influence expand during his tenure. While Zucker is known to involve himself in minutiae of shows, even occasionally talking to anchors while they are on TV, a range of CNN employees both longtime and new have thrived. Don Lemon and Brooke Baldwin had both been at CNN for several years before Zucker joined, but neither enjoyed their current profiles until they were promoted during Zucker’s time. He has also recruited others who had stable jobs – Jake Tapper and Cuomo at ABC News, and Alisyn Camerota at Fox News Channel – and given them new opportunities. Even Wolf Blitzer, who has been with CNN since 1990, has found new relevance in the run-up to the 2020 election. During the run-up to the 2020 election, he has been anchoring on weekends as well as weekdays and recently tangled on air with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

AT&T does not have an obvious successor for Zucker. To be certain, CNN’s senior staff contains several executives who might step into his shoes, including Michael Bass, a longtime Zucker lieutenant who oversees much of the network’s news programming, or Amy Entelis, an ABC News veteran who manages talent and has put CNN in the business of producing original series and documentaries. Andrew Morse, the former head of Bloomberg’s U.S. TV operations, has oversight of CNN’s digital operations, which have expanded greatly in recent years. And Ken Jautz, who has been with CNN and WarnerMedia for decades, has experience overseeing news operations as well as an eye for interesting personalities. It’s Jautz who has helped launch anchors such as Nancy Grace, Robin Meade and Glenn Beck.

There is no shortage, however, of veteran news executives currently on the sidelines. Jim Bell, who ran NBC’s “Today” for many years and then was the top producer of its Olympics coverage, left that company in the fall of last year. Ben Sherwood, whose success with ABC News’ “Good Morning America” led him to a top roost at Walt Disney, has been working on his own projects.  David Rhodes, the former president of CBS News, has been consulting for News Corp. overseas. If AT&T wanted to poke at a competitor, it could try to recruit Rashida Jones, an up-and-coming executive at NBC News whose talent with special broadcasts has spurred that company to give her new responsibilities.

Any new executive would have to consider whether he or she would want to continue with Zucker’s programming strategy. In recent years, CNN has become something it never was back when Bernard Shaw or Aaron Brown delivered its top headlines. For perhaps the first time since it launched in 1980, CNN is polarizing.

For years, CNN enjoyed the status accorded to a public utility that sells water or electricity. It wasn’t the flashiest entity, but it was always there when customers needed it, like during the outbreak of war or a presidential election. CNN’s ratings tended to soar when big news events happened.

CNN’s business grew more complicated in 1996. after NBC and Microsoft launched MSNBC and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. debuted Fox News Channel. Over the years, these networks filled their primetime hours with programs that took a partisan view on the news of the day – and generated bigger audiences than CNN’s.

Under Zucker, CNN’s tone has grown more aggressive, at times even bellicose. Many of its programs thrive on right-versus-left showdowns between various contributors and analysts, and many of its anchors have widened their profiles by tackling Trump administration officials in minutes-long interviews. On occasion, CNN will skip a commercial break so viewers can watch a particularly heated back-and-forth. One of CNN’s newer daytime anchors, Brianna Keilar, has gained traction with essay segments that call out falsehoods in no uncertain terms.

That wasn’t the original plan. When Zucker first came to CNN, he focused on developing a spate of new original series, like Anthony Bourdain’s popular “Parts Unknown.” The ideas was to have a ready stock of interesting programming on hand to keep viewers interested when there was a lull in the news cycle. At a CNN party held in 2013, Zucker joked to the crowd that he hoped they liked the new Bourdain series, because they’d be seeing the episodes again and again. CNN quickly tapped personalities like Lisa Ling, John Walsh and Morgan Spurlock for similar efforts. On the news front, Zucker pushed CNN to own stories that got people talking, sometimes serious (the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine) and occasionally bizarre (the plight of a crippled cruise ship off the coast of Mexico). When launching CNN’s morning program “New Day,” Zucker said the program “reminds me of when we put together the ‘Today’ show team in 1996, with Katie and Matt” (the show was eventually retooled for the current tougher news moment).

Those concepts were devised for a different time. All of those efforts took a back seat to coverage of the Trump administration. Zucker has acknowledged that CNN may have given Trump too much of a spotlight in the run-up to his election, but under his aegis the president has turned CNN into an opponent. He has criticized Zucker in public comments, singled out CNN White House correspondents for opprobrium, and refused to be interviewed by the network during his time in the White House.

Viewership, meanwhile, has grown to new heights. Fox News and MSNBC continue to win more viewers overall in primetime than CNN, but CNN’s shows have edged out MSNBC in an important category – the one advertisers pay for. CNN had more viewers between 25 and 54 than MSNBC for the third quarter and had the most-watched second quarter in its history.

CNN has launched new podcasts and video series, and operates a large digital news operation, but it its rivals have been launching distinct, stand-alone programming ventures for on-the-go consumers, whether it be the lifestyle shows and documentaries at Fox News’ Fox Nation, or the you-are-there streamcasts of ABC News Live. One CNN video venture, Great Big Story, a feature-news hub aimed at millennials, was recently shuttered. And another effort to work with social media influencer Casey Neistat never got off the ground.

Critics and some former employees wonder whether CNN can recalibrate itself in case Biden wins the presidency, potentially setting in place a less frenetic environment — and, some predict, a drop in viewership for news outlets across the board. The news cycle, as always, will continue unabated, but the next few weeks will likely determine whether Jeff Zucker or Jason Kilar has a greater hand in determining how CNN contributes to it.