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CNN topper Jeff Zucker managed to tear himself away from the office on Friday afternoon. The president of CNN Worldwide, in the thick of covering the election, appeared onstage at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum — where he talked about the Access Hollywood tape, Donald Trump’s Apprentice request to be paid the salary of the entire Friends cast and Megyn Kelly’s upcoming contract renewal.
“I have had a unique relationship with Donald Trump,” Zucker started off. “I’m also the one who put him and The Apprentice on the air at NBC. I’ve known who he is and what he is for a long time.”
What he knows, Zucker emphasized, has nothing to do with the mounting allegations of sexual misconduct that have been levied against the presidential nominee over the course of the last week. He was adamant that it was news to him. “What is out there now, I am unaware of any of that,” he said. “I never heard any of that. I knew him as somebody who loved to brag about his ratings, loved the spotlight and knew how to draw attention to his programming.”
On the subject of the hot-mic audio of Trump discussing groping women with Billy Bush, Zucker said he wasn’t sure if Bush should lose his job over the matter — but he did make it quite clear that CNN would not have held any such tapes, as NBC News did with the old Access Hollywood audio. “If CNN had come into the same information, I see no reason why we wouldn’t have published it as soon as we verified it,” he said. “I can’t speak to the process that went on at NBC News, but my gut would have been to publish that story and put it on the air as soon as we came into contact with it.”
Though Zucker also spent much time talking about his CNN tenure, the network’s push into original programming and its 2016 ratings growth, moderator Lois Romano of the Washington Post did focus the first 20 minutes on the divisive nominee. The crowd of students seemed most pleased when Zucker discussed his tenure as president and CEO of NBCUniversal. The executive had some pretty exceptional color to contribute about Trump’s contract negotiation after The Apprentice‘s breakout first season. Trump, per Zucker, wanted to be paid the per-episode salary that the cast of Friends was earning at the time — a cool $1 million. ” ‘Donald, you’re not going to get a million [per] episode,’ ” Zucker recalled telling the host. “He said, ‘No, I mean all six members.’ ”
Zucker, laughing at the suggestion of a $6 million per-episode salary, said he countered with $600,000. Trump turned him down — until his lawyer called the next day and agreed to the fee. “He would always claim the ratings were bigger than they were,” added Zucker.
The cable chief again defended CNN’s heavy coverage of Trump as news and added that a lot of it had to do with the candidate’s willingness to appear on air.
“If we made a mistake last year, it’s that we put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months,” he said, then pivoting to CNN’s many interviews with the candidate. “In [Trump’s] defense, and in our defense, when we asked him for an interview, he said yes. And I cannot say that about the other Republicans who were running for president. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush went two months without giving an interview. That’s not Donald Trump and CNN’s fault.”
The subject of Fox News Channel came up twice. Zucker hyped CNN’s growing ratings, noting that it was now earning just 2 percent less of the cable news audience of adults 25-54 than his biggest competition. Total viewership, he admitted, is a more difficult title to grasp. “I think it’s going to be very hard for us to overtake their audience because their audience has a lot of people over the age of 70,” he said, taking a jab. “Frankly, we’re not chasing those people.”
One thing about Fox News he might be interested in is star anchor Megyn Kelly. Zucker kept coy, much to his audience’s amusement, when the topic of cable news’ most coveted personality came up — but he did have kind words for her.
“I think we all know her contract is up some time next year, and I think she’s an incredible news anchor, and I think she can do whatever she wants,” he said, smiling. “I’ll leave it there.”
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