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Jeff Zucker’s stunning resignation from CNN has left staff at the company reeling at one of the most critical points in its 42-year history.
The channel is in the midst of two corporate-level shifts: Entering the streaming wars via its CNN+ service this spring, and preparing to operate under new ownership once the merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery Inc. is completed.
At the same time, the channel still has a hole to fill in its critical 9 p.m. hour after Chris Cuomo was fired in December, while also preparing for what could be a wild 2022 midterm election, one that company executives had been hoping could turn around its ratings fortunes. (While CNN drew record-breaking ratings in 2020 and 2021, the channel’s numbers have fallen in recent months, in line with the slower news cycle.)
But no initiative has been more important to Zucker than CNN+, according to multiple CNN sources. One source said they believed that Zucker, who initially planned to step down at the end of last year, stuck around in large part so he could oversee the launch of the streaming service. Andrew Morse, the CNN executive in charge of CNN+, said of the service, “This is the most important launch for CNN since Ted Turner launched the network in June of 1980,” and that point of view was shared by staff.
Zucker took an active role in helping to craft CNN+, another source says, getting personally involved in the recruiting efforts for people like Chris Wallace and giving feedback on program development as new and current CNN talent began to formulate shows and concepts.
CNN+ is expected to launch in the next couple of months — and critical decisions still need to be made (final pricing and launch date, launch marketing, etc.) — but it will do so without the executive known for managing editorial down to suggesting questions to anchors in their earpieces mid-interview.
But WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who was the founding CEO of Hulu and who spearheaded the HBO Max pivot, has been spending more time on the CNN+ project as well.
In a tweet just a couple of hours before Zucker’s resignation (and after he almost certainly knew what was coming), Kilar commented on the earnings from The New York Times, writing, “Contrary to consensus opinion not long ago, I believe the data is showing that the internet has been one of the best things to ever ‘happen’ to NYT,” and adding that as a result, he was “excited for [CNN+].”
At the same they were shepherding the CNN+ initiative, CNN execs were also trying to formulate a post-Cuomo plan for the 9 p.m. hour. In addition to the various anchors that have filled in during the hour, the channel was developing a number of other formats that could be tested at 9, including panel shows, which have become a cable news staple. (Fox News Channel’s The Five has, in some recent weeks, been the most watched show in cable news).
Those efforts will surely continue (Amy Entelis and Michael Bass, two top Zucker deputies whom WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar tapped as interim CNN leaders, have been closely involved in the efforts to replace Cuomo already), but Zucker’s departure as a consequence of Cuomo’s firing only complicates the plans.
Bass, Entelis and Ken Jautz “have agreed to serve as interim co-heads for CNN beginning today through what you should anticipate will be through the close of the pending transaction with Discovery,” Kilar told staff Wednesday, adding, “I have full confidence that Michael, Amy and Ken, as interim heads for news, will provide the leadership this organization needs during this time of transition.”
But early meetings have been met with skepticism (although most of that skepticism has been directed toward Kilar, rather than the CNN veterans). A source who was present confirms that Kilar, Bass, Entelis and Jautz’s meeting with the CNN D.C. bureau late Wednesday was “tense,” with the journalists in attendance asking pointed questions about Zucker’s departure, and questioning the timing of his resignation. “I would not describe Jason’s answers as ‘direct,’” the source says.
And the lineup rejiggering and streaming launch will happen under the cloud of the pending Discovery merger, raising the prospect that incoming CEO David Zaslav will pivot the company’s strategy once more, or install his own leadership.
While Bass, Entelis and Jautz are all well-respected (Jautz even previously ran CNN on a day-to-day basis before Zucker took over the news division), the commitment to have them run CNN through the Discovery merger only amplified the uncertainty about what comes next.
That’s because Zucker, who is a close friend of Zaslav, was seen as having a role in the combined company.
“We go back decades together,” Zaslav said of Zucker in the press conference unveiling the Discovery-Warner deal. “Jeff is an extraordinary talent, CNN is number one. … It’s all about the talent, and so we’ll be trying to figure out, how do we get the best people to stay?”
Zucker resigned Feb. 2 after being questioned about a personal relationship with one of his top executives, CNN head of marketing Allison Gollust. “I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t,” Zucker told staff. “I was wrong.”
Early on in the merger process, Zucker was cited as someone who could potentially lead Warner Bros. Discovery’s combined global news and sports operations, or take on a corporate operations role. He was also considered someone who could serve in a consulting role, helping to integrate CNN and Turner Sports into the combined company, even if he didn’t stick around long-term.
And while one source notes that regulatory delays precluded official conversations about a role for Zucker, inside CNN it was seen as “a foregone conclusion” that he would stick around in some capacity after the deal closed.
“Let me put it this way, I don’t think anyone expected Jeff to leave the company before Jason [Kilar],” a CNNer says.
With regulators still not signed off on the merger — though AT&T CEO John Stankey said last month he was “very comfortable” with the progress and expected the deal to close in mid-2022, if not sooner — Discovery has been mum on the Zucker news.
However, departments like legal and human resources, which were already likely to be in the crosshairs for potential merger “synergies,” are only going to be facing closer scrutiny now.
And so CNN, and its staff, have to push forward on the biggest corporate initiative in decades, and with its biggest primetime change in years, all under the shadow of imminent new corporate leadership who may choose to blow up the whole thing … or not.
One on-air talent says they are holding out hope that maybe, after the deal has closed and the dust has settled, Zaslav will bring back Zucker, even if only as a consultant, to help steady the ship during what could be an uncertain time.
The idea seems increasingly unlikely. AT&T is set to control the combined company’s board of directors alongside John Malone, who has not been fond of many of the moves made by Zucker. The media mogul even slighted the network in November when he said he’d like CNN to get back to its roots and “actually have journalists.”
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