CNN Is Having a Moment. Could It Be One of Jeff Zucker’s Last?

These could be some of the last weeks at CNN with Jeff Zucker at the helm. And true to form, they are noisy.

“This is violence that has been inspired by President Trump, by President Trump’s supporters,” said Jake Tapper, speaking last week during CNN’s breaking-news coverage of insurrectionists piling into the U.S. Capitol in a bid to squelch certification of Joe Biden’s presidential win. “It is a disgraceful moment in American history.”

No-holds-barred reportage has been given more of a spotlight in the Zucker era, but there are concerns his time may be nearing an end. A Zucker farewell is a real possibility, according to four people familiar with the matter, spurring no small amount of hand-wringing at the AT&T-owned news stalwart. The executive has indicated he’s unsure if he wants to continue much longer, these people say, citing his eight years managing the outlet during one of the most intense news cycles in recent memory.

Zucker has been waiting for the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election to settle so he can devote some thought to the situation, according to one of these individuals. He is expected to make his choice known sometime this month, two of them say, and does not feel any pressure to leave the company.

After any U.S. election, a tumultuous news cycle usually starts to quiet down, but life at CNN has not. As the question of Zucker’s fate hangs open, CNN is enjoying a moment of sorts:  important surges in post-election viewership that it has gained by following many of Zucker’s strategies. CNN has in recent weeks moved to the top of the ratings in the demographic most coveted by advertisers — people between 25 and 54 — among its cable news competitors. Since the election, CNN has led in the metric for 61 consecutive days, its longest winning streak in 21 years. Fox News has generally maintained its lead in total viewers in primetime. On Monday and Tuesday nights, however, CNN and MSNBC programs won more audience in many prime slots. On Jan. 6, CNN notched another surprising milestone: Its coverage of the Capitol insurrection spurred the biggest viewing day in the network’s history.

Even CNN’s coverage of New Year’s Eve — not its newsiest moment — outmatched that of its cable news rivals by significant margins.

Other parts of the network’s Zucker-orchestrated business are also showing mettle. CNN in early 2021 plans to unveil a documentary in which filmmakers have access to the many pharmaceutical teams that helped develop coronavirus vaccines, part of the network’s ongoing effort to develop movies and series with a programming unit devoted to nonfiction storytelling. A new series starring actor Stanley Tucci sampling the cuisine of Italy is slated to debut in February, CNN’s first attempt at launching a culinary journalism series since the death of Anthony Bourdain in 2018. And CNN anchor Kate Bolduan recently took to the air with a customized top that bore the slogan “Facts First,” the latest example of the more aggressive positioning CNN — which throws off more than $1 billion in profit annually — has adopted since Zucker became chief.

Behind the public achievement, however, is palpable concern about what the executive’s departure could mean for those who stay behind. “He’s absolutely at the top of his game, and all of CNN would want to go with him, no contest,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at Yale University’s School of Management, in an interview. “If it wasn’t in violation of his contract, he’d be the Pied Piper of news.”

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Some say CNN needs to reimagine itself during the coming Biden administration, one for which it my hold sympathy. Courtesy of CNN

Dozens of anchors, correspondents and producers — many of whom have become household names during their boss’s tenure — want to know his next steps. Agents have received calls from CNN clients asking what a Zucker exit might mean for them. Executives at WarnerMedia, which has seen a parade of departures of the senior executives in place before AT&T bought the company in 2018 for more than $85 billion, might be curious as well.

At a time of great flux in the media industry, CNN may be one of the few sure things WarnerMedia has. The parent company has in recent months placed most of its focus on the launch of the streaming-video hub HBO Max. And while every traditional media conglomerate is moving full-bore into streaming, each still needs the revenue generated by linear TV to stay intact. As more people watch their scripted favorites on demand, news and sports will have to carry more of the load of gathering big live crowds to all screens.

WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar has in recent weeks suggested he’d like Zucker to remain. “The two best things that ever happened to CNN were Ted Turner and Jeff Zucker,” Kilar said at a Variety event.

CNN’s momentum comes as its rivals grapple with unique issues. MSNBC, part of NBCUniversal, is in transition, with a new president, Rashida Jones, expected to take over from longtime chief Phil Griffin in weeks to come. Jones has won accolades for her finesse with special reports and town halls, but it is Griffin who cultivated relationships with top network personalities like Rachel Maddow and Joe Scarborough.

Fox News Channel, meanwhile, took some heat after the election from the far-right portion of its audience and Trump supporters. These viewers were aghast that Fox News’ Decision Desk called Arizona for President-elect Biden on election night — days in advance of other outlets — and in recent weeks, some shows on Newsmax, a smaller competitor, have seen viewership rise. None of that, however, kept the Fox Corp.-backed outlet from delivering its largest average audience in 2020.

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CNN’s ratings rose while covering the Trump White House as the president became more and more unhinged. Courtesy of CNN

CNN won’t be immune from challenges in months to come. As WarnerMedia has focused on streaming, so too will CNN, according to a person familiar with the matter. Under Zucker, the company has experimented with new forms of video news, including an effort by YouTube influencer Casey Neistat and another called Great Big Story, a hub of short, newsy videos centered on topics ranging from Humboldt penguins to the creator of a cartoon character for cereal ads. Both were shut down. In 2017, CNN executives indicated they were mulling subscription-based products that would give customers access to content built around specific personalities. But the network has yet to reveal details of a concrete next step.

Other critical dynamics will be in motion. The year after a presidential election can be a difficult one for cable news outlets, which often see ratings decline as viewers gravitate to other spectacles. CNN is projected to see shortfalls in both advertising and distribution revenue, according to Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Market Intelligence. CNN’s affiliate fees are forecast to fall 5% in 2021, to $953.7 million from more than $1 billion last year. Ad revenue is projected to dip 16% to $600.6 million in 2021, compared with $715.4 million last year. Fox News Channel and MSNBC are facing similar trends, according to Kagan projections.

Cable news outlets “have to reimagine themselves for the post-Trump era. I’m not sure that anyone has any idea what that is going to look like,” says Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication and a former NBC News executive. “History would tell you that the ratings are not kind to the networks that are sympathetic to the president in power at that moment.”

Under Zucker, however, CNN has staked out an aggressive demeanor. Larry King once held genial conversations with celebrities at 9 p.m. on CNN. These days, Chris Cuomo uses that hour to push guests to answer tough questions. Executives expect to maintain that stance — they call it “Facts First” — during a Biden administration, says a person familiar with the matter. The positioning turns what was once CNN’s middle-of-the-road information-gathering into something that holds newsmakers to account, no matter their political leanings.

There has been speculation that AT&T, struggling with a heavy debt load, might like to rid itself of CNN. Doing so, however, might be a difficult task. Just as Fox News contributes a significant amount of profit to the operations of its parent, Fox Corp., so CNN boosts WarnerMedia.

Much of CNN’s revenue comes from long-term affiliation contracts around the world, says media industry analyst Craig Moffett of the independent firm MoffettNathanson. That’s the kind of cash flow Wall Street loves. CNN is also seen as a huge driver of the soon-to-launch advertising-supported version of HBO Max. And as consumers move to streaming and undermine TV networks more reliant on scripted entertainment, CNN will become more valuable, Moffett argues. “As they pivot more and more toward their HBO Max strategy, the negotiating leverage of TNT and TBS gets weaker and weaker.”

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© Melissa Golden

This would appear to be the time for WarnerMedia and CNN to stay the course. Zucker, however, has never been a traditionalist. When he was head of NBC Entertainment, he expanded a few episodes of comedies “Friends,” “Will & Grace” and “Just Shoot Me!” to 40 minutes and called the resulting block Super-Size Thursday. He also tried to promote rerun episodes to people who had missed them the first time around, telling viewers in promos, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you.”

Indeed, Zucker’s choice to go to CNN would not be one that many with his résumé would pursue. He rose to become CEO of NBCUniversal before Comcast bought it from General Electric. Other big media CEOs like Michael Eisner and Tom Freston ankled top jobs at Walt Disney and Viacom, respectively, launched their own niche ventures and made strategic investments. Zucker, however, has chosen steady work. First, he led a daytime talk show anchored by Katie Couric and then moved to CNN, where he is a powerful operating chief — but not the top person at the larger company, as he has been in the past.

Zucker came to CNN in 2013, while it was owned by Time Warner, and he has remained at the company even as AT&T has put in many new senior executives at its operating units. Senior execs court risk in staying at a corporation that has new owners, says Robert Kelley, a professor of management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “[The new owners] may say, ‘We have got our own ideas about what we are going to do, and we are going to bring somebody else in to do it.’”

Managing a journalism outfit is a unique assignment, however, and many media CEOs may not want the distraction. News operations are filled with talent issues and coverage pressures and are prone to drawing outsize scrutiny from critics and advocacy organizations. News units “have always been at their best when they have a Jeff Zucker-type person backing up against the suits,” says management professor Sonnenfeld. He likens Zucker and Kilar to other pairings of journalism managers and media CEOs, such as Edward R. Murrow and William Paley at CBS.

Zucker’s tenure at CNN hasn’t been smooth. The network has been criticized for its indulgent coverage of Trump in his early days as a candidate, and for its bickering red-versus-blue panels in primetime. Yet a phalanx of tough-skinned anchors like Cuomo and Don Lemon, Brianna Keilar and Alisyn Camerota, have always returned for another day of broadcasting, no matter the level of intensity of their on-air exchanges with guests.

“It takes a strong personality to run one of these networks,” says Lukasiewicz. “If [Zucker] leaves, there will be a hole in the organization that will not be easy to fill.”

Many CNN employees hope their boss will hang on, and some observers say they would be surprised if he did indeed give up the job. The guy likes to get his hands dirty. “I think he’s going to stay,” says Sonnenfeld. But only Jeff Zucker truly knows what he wants to do next.