WarnerMedia Hasn’t Focused on Replacing Jeff Zucker, Opening Chance for Executive to Stay

Jeff Zucker president of CNN Worldwide
Melissa Golden for Variety

If WarnerMedia is really looking to replace Jeff Zucker, the company isn’t telling a lot of people about it.

Zucker, the veteran media executive who oversees both CNN and Warner’s sports business, said earlier this year he intended to step down from his roles around the end of 2021, when his current employment contract is set to expire. With a little more than five months to go, however, five people inside and outside the company who would have typically have knowledge of the parameters of an executive search say they are not aware of one taking place, lending ballast to the notion that Zucker may have reason to stay into 2022.

WarnerMedia declined to comment.

In public, Zucker has continued to say he expects to leave on the timeline he has described. Now, however, he seems likely to have the option to remain in place until at least the completion of a proposed merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery, maintaining continuity for the employees and operations under his aegis. Doing so would keep CNN and Warner’s Turner Sports on a more familiar business trajectory, one that would likely be disrupted by bringing in a short-term caretaker, and, potentially, another executive after Discovery takes over WarnerMedia.

The proposed merger is slated to be completed by the middle of 2022.

Should Zucker elect to stay, it will likely give new momentum to growing speculation that he could be in line for an important executive role at the merged entity. Zucker is known to be friendly with David Zaslav, Discovery’s chairman and CEO. Unlike many executives, Zucker has been a corporate CEO himself, leading NBCUniversal between 2007 and 2011.

“Jeff is an extraordinary talent,” Zaslav said at a news conference in May when the deal was announced. “The focus will be on talking to everybody at Discovery and everybody at WarnerMedia and figuring out how we put this company together. It’s all about the talent, and so we’ll be trying to figure out how do we get the best people to stay.” At a town-hall meeting with CNN employees in May, Zucker indicated he intended to investigate what options he might have in a merged WarnerMedia and Discovery.

But such chatter is likely premature. The two companies can’t coordinate their efforts before a deal is consummated, and elements such as the new entity’s executive structure have yet to be unveiled. Discovery declined to comment.

There are reasons for Zucker to keep his hands on the reins of the properties under his gaze. Turner Sports is gearing up to launch coverage of the NHL under a new seven-year deal that brings professional hockey to Warner for the first time. CNN has unveiled plans to launch CNN Plus, a new streaming-video service, in 2022. Exiting late this year would keep Zucker from overseeing the digital launch as well as the completion of Turner’s first NHL season.

And CNN continues to navigate its way in a post-election news cycle, when many news outlets are grappling with year over year declines in viewership and consumer attention. CNN has in recent weeks continued to display the more aggressive demeanor it has taken on since Zucker joined as president in 2013, airing multiple segments about vaccine disinformation and the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. But it is also developing new muscles, including a successful cooking series from actor Stanley Tucci and new journalism efforts devoted to space exploration; race and culture; and climate and the environment. On Friday, for example, CNN will air a special anchored by Bill Weir, its chief climate correspondent, that examine the future of food consumption and the emergence of meat-less diets.

An executive search for a new head of sports and CNN would likely take a while to complete. The CNN job alone requires managing hundreds of employees and carries responsibilities that are larger than even those overseeing the news operations of a broadcast network. In late January, Walt Disney Company announced the former president of ABC News, James Goldston, would exit. The company didn’t settle upon a replacement, Kim Godwin, until early April.