CNN Could Face a Reset Once Under Discovery Control

David Zaslav Jeff Zucker
Zucker: Melissa Golden/Redux for Variety; Zaslav: Art Streiber for Variety

Ever since Jeff Zucker seized the reins at CNN in early 2013, the cable-news network has been one of loudest voices in media circles. Now, even though Discovery didn’t push the executive out, there’s a sense the company will, after it buys CNN along with the rest of WarnerMedia, look to turn down the volume.

In the Zucker era, CNN became more swashbuckling, more colorful, and indeed, more opinionated than it ever was under the aegis of its founder Ted Turner, or his successors at the former Time Warner. CNN went from delivering headlines to being in the headlines. It’s hard to imagine previous CNN leaders like Walter Isaacson or Tom Johnson encouraging moments like the one when Don Lemon in 2018 uttered, “This is CNN Tonight. I’m Don Lemon. The president of the United States is racist.” But Zucker pushed CNN to be blunt and unstinting in its efforts to hold feet to the fire.

Zucker is friends with Discovery chief David Zaslav, and there had been an expectation the two would work together after AT&T spun off WarnerMedia to Discovery’s control. But now that Zucker is out, Discovery faces the unique challenge of managing CNN in a tougher environment for the news business. And for Discovery, a media company that tries to maintain a quieter corporate demeanor, Zucker’s hot talk could look more like a hot mess.

CNN’s linear ratings have declined noticeably in recent months. It has had no steady anchor in its critical 9 p.m. hour since Chris Cuomo’s ouster in December. And the March launch of a massive CNN Plus streaming-video hub comes as news subscribers have begun to defect from traditional sources like newspapers and cable networks. Zucker isn’t there to manage it any longer: He was ousted last week after a fascinating nine-year run across the news giant, felled by his failure to disclose to WarnerMedia he was in a romantic relationship with Allison Gollust, CNN’s chief marketing officer. “I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong,” Zucker said in a memo to staff. Gollust has expressed an interest in staying with the company, though observers aren’t sure she will be able to do that for the long term.

Zucker added spice to the CNN mix. He changed the culture of the news outlet, shoving it into more direct competition with Fox News Channel and MSNBC, which thrive on primetime opinion programming tilted at partisan viewers. Pugnacious correspondents like Cuomo, Brianna Keilar and Jim Acosta thrived in the Zucker era, and many anchors have new leeway to express their passion or personal feelings around a breaking-news story. For a time, the strategy worked: CNN was tied anew to the pop-culture and political conversations of the last several years, and its ratings spiked, particularly in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.

Will Discovery change the recipe? There are signs that executives at the company see Zucker’s departure as an opportunity for a reset at CNN, according to people familiar with their thinking. And while CNN staffers have in recent days openly expressed a wish that Zaslav might hire Zucker back, these people familiar with executives’ interests suggested those hopes represent magical thinking, not actionable strategy. Discovery declined to make executives available for comment. CNN declined to comment.

One prominent Discovery shareholder, John Malone, has already been vocal. “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing,” the entrepreneurial media investor told CNBC in November. Malone will serve on the Discovery board, but no longer has a commanding block of super-voting shares as he once did, leaving Zaslav at the helm.

Others argue Zucker’s strategies have been good for CNN — and for people who have been helped by its aggressive accountability journalism in Washington. “Zucker delivered on what corporate executives care about most — profits — and was only removed for reasons unrelated to his programming success,” says Mark Feldstein, chairman of broadcast journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at University of Maryland. “Especially in an election year, I would think CNN is unlikely to abandon its heat-generating advocacy approach to national politics.”   Malone appears to believe “the news is the star, and not the anchors,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management, but Zucker’s efforts have turned CNN into a unit that throws off more than $1 billion in profit. A change in direction, he says, “could have strategic significance for Discovery’s shareholders.”

Like its cable-news counterparts, CNN is gearing up for what should be an intense period in the news cycle: the 2022 midterm elections. And yet, CNN’s subscribers, advertising revenue and affiliate revenue are all seen dipping in 2022, according to projections by Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence. The network is projected to keep more subscribers than MSNBC or Fox News Channel, but those two are expected to eke out gains on Madison Avenue.

Advertisers in news programming may not be interested in the same old stuff from CNN. One media buyer suggests that a full rebrand of CNN could potentially draw new sponsors, but advertisers who stay away from news and opinion programs because they can be polarizing aren’t likely to change their stance. Those who flock to news, this buyer says, “want to see ratings increases to help drive business.”

Changing CNN’s current dynamics could hinge on finding a new personality to lead the 9 p.m. hour, a pivotal time for which networks often charge some their highest ad fees. People familiar with CNN suggest executives are content for now to keep rotating anchors during the period. After all, MSNBC faces a similar dilemma with Rachel Maddow expected to pull back from weeknights to tend to other projects, and that network is also experimenting with substitutes. Why should CNN put a new player in the lineup when it’s not sure of the rival that will be on the field?

There may also be scrutiny on the economics of the newest part of CNN’s business. Under Zucker, CNN hired dozens of new staffers, including Chris Wallace and Kasie Hunt, for CNN Plus, and commissioned a new series about Mexican cuisine led by Eva Longoria. But the process has been a chaotic one, say people familiar with the network, with some shows expected to be ready at launch and others going through a piloting process that means they will debut weeks later. One thing to keep in mind: Discovery already produces thousands of hours of its own unscripted programming, including dozens of shows about topics like food and travel, and has loaded them up on Discovery Plus, a separate subscription streaming-video hub.

Discovery isn’t dipping its toe in news for the first time. CNN would become a gargantuan part of a portfolio that includes Poland’s TVN Group, which operates TVN24, a prominent national news outlet. Discovery recently had to defend the organization as a bill made its way through that country’s parliament that would have banned foreign ownership of media outlets. It was vetoed by President Andrzej Duda.  Discovery is also an investor in GB News, an upstart U.K. TV outlet that has been looking to disrupt the scene by relying on opinion and commentary, and is viewed by some as a sort of British counterpart to Fox News.

Controversy often follows the job of delivering the news, and Discovery has some appetite for it.  This is the company, after all, behind titillating series like “Naked & Afraid” and “Jon & Kate Plus Eight.” It recently managed to keep a new series, “Home Work,” on the fledgling Magnolia Network, built around home-renovation personalities Chip and Joanna Gaines on the schedule despite complaints from homeowners of damages from renovation by the series’ stars, Andy and Candis Meredith.

Even so, Discovery has moved quickly when things get too hot to handle. It quickly extricated itself from the popular series “19 Kids & Counting” after Josh Duggar, a member of the family at the center of the show, was discovered to have sexually assaulted teenage girls, including some of his sisters. And it exited the popular “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” after discovering June Shannon, one of the show’s central figures, was dating a man convicted of child molestation. After retailing giant Lowe’s announced in 2011 it would no longer support “All-American Muslim,” a series on Discovery’s TLC that examined the lives of Muslim-American families living in Dearborn, Michigan, Discovery quietly declined to pick up the show for a second season.

CNN staffers remain loyal to Zucker and admired him for fending off detractors and elevating many to new, prominent on-air roles.  Zucker is the executive who famously sued the White House when it blocked Acosta, the White House correspondent, from briefings.

But there’s no arguing that the network hasn’t become more polarizing as it has become more prominent. And while CNN’s on-air product continues to include stories from around the world and on a range of topics, it has become defined by its political coverage, even as issues like climate change and race in society have taken on new prominence. Under Zucker, CNN has launched new teams devoted to those topics, and one longtime staffer acknowledges there is more CNN could do to highlight other areas of the news cycle.

CNN already has new, temporary caretakers. Veterans Amy Entelis, Michael Bass and Ken Jautz — who supervise talent relations and original content; news programming; and operations and HLN, respectively — are set to lead CNN until the merger. But there’s a sense Discovery will put the news operation under the aegis of a new honcho who may favor a different management style.

Zucker was enmeshed in the tiniest details, right down to what words fit in the “chyrons” at the bottom of the screen. He has thrived on chaos throughout his career and caromed from the morning wars at NBC’s “Today,” where he served as the show’s youngest executive producer, to the top of NBCUniversal, where he tried, and failed, to stage-manage a succession at “Tonight” from Jay Leno to Conan O’Brien. Zucker likes to keep many plates spinning in the air while rattling off to observers how he’s getting the job done.

Zaslav, on the other hand, doesn’t juggle in public. He is behind the scenes a relentless operator, someone who puts executive performance under high scrutiny, pestering top executives with questions about why the job isn’t being done faster, better — and now! If CNN draws his gaze, staffers should be prepared.

Whether run by Turner, Zucker or Zaslav, the core of CNN’s appeal is its ability to inform viewers of all backgrounds. Even envelope-pushing Zucker recognized that, says one CNN anchor, and in recent months articulated to staffers that “the middle has to hold.” Executives charged with leading CNN in the wake of Zucker’s exit have vowed to staffers in internal meetings that his vision for the network will remain intact, but chances are Discovery will dim Zucker’s flash.