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Is CNN chief Jeff Zucker among those being considered for the top job at ESPN? Multiple sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that Zucker has thrown his hat in the ring to run ESPN in the wake of John Skipper’s abrupt departure in December.
Zucker has had no direct conversations with Disney CEO Robert Iger, who is working with acting ESPN chairman George Bodenheimer to identify a successor. He reportedly signed a lengthy contract extension with CNN last year.
Zucker can be credited with turning the cable news network around, leading it to a record $1 billion in profit in 2017. But his future at CNN has been the subject of intense speculation owing to Donald Trump’s consistent criticism and a looming showdown with the Justice Department, which has sued to stop AT&T’s proposed $85 billion merger with CNN parent Time Warner.
He and the president share a history. During Zucker’s pre-CNN tenure at NBCUniversal, he green-lighted The Apprentice, and Trump has publicly taken credit for getting Zucker his job CNN. Zucker has brushed off the latter, telling THR last year, “We all know the truth, so it’s just amusing.”
As for the stalled merger, the DOJ lawsuit argues that the deal would violate antitrust laws, stifling competition and resulting in less innovation and “higher bills for American families.” The suit does not specifically target CNN, but there has been open speculation that the DOJ is challenging the merger at the behest of Trump, who has labeled CNN “fake news.” And while many mainstream news organizations have earned the pejorative from the president, CNN seems to be the president’s favorite target.
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has been highly critical of the DOJ’s position. “I’ve done a lot of deals in my career, but I’ve never done one where we have disagreed with the Department of Justice so much on even the most basic of facts,” Stephenson said during a press conference shortly after the filing last month. “The rule of law is at issue here.”
Addressing the CNN dynamic, Stephenson added: “There’s been a lot of reporting and speculation whether this is all about CNN, and frankly I don’t know. But nobody should be surprised that the question keeps coming up because we’ve been witnessing such an abrupt change in the application of antitrust law here. Any agreement that results in us forfeiting control of CNN is a non-starter.”
At ESPN, the abrupt resignation of John Skipper several days before Christmas sent shock waves through the Bristol, Conn.-based network. Bodenheimer, ESPN’s president from 1998 to 2011 and its executive chairman until May 2014, has been acting chairman, and is expected to remain for 90 days.
There are multiple internal candidates including Kevin Mayer, the head of strategy at Disney, and Jimmy Pitaro, who leads Disney’s lucrative consumer products group and was previously head of Disney Interactive. But Zucker, who got his start at NBC as a researcher for the Summer Olympics, is an intriguing candidate, as much for what he would bring to the job — he’s famous for being in the trenches, and has been described as a micromanager — as for the job he would have to give up.
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