If you follow the breadcrumbs of media for long enough, you see that the groundwork for seismic moves can oftentimes be laid a year or more in advance. That’s what this story from the Wall Street Journal about CNN boss Jeff Zucker feeling “frustrated” and “blindsided” by a restructuring at parent company AT&T feels like — a first step towards an ultimate exit.
There are some institutions where a leader is forced out or voluntarily steps aside but there is not dramatic, wholesale change. That would not be the case with CNN, where Zucker has micromanaged the content on TV and digital day and night for seven years. If he goes, CNN would undergo an evolution where we couldn’t even conceive what it would look like in a couple years.
Here is the nut graph that describes Zucker’s frustrations with Jason Kilar, who was named CEO of AT&T’s WarnerMedia this past April:
“When Mr. Kilar succeeded John Stankey atop WarnerMedia earlier this year, he carried out another overhaul in August that took away from Mr. Zucker oversight of CNN’s finances and human resources, as well as communications—an area run by one of Mr. Zucker’s top lieutenants, Allison Gollust. The changes annoyed and surprised Mr. Zucker, the people familiar with the situation said.”
Furthermore, Kilar used to work for Zucker at Hulu, and now the tables have turned. That also comes at a time where CNN, after doing great financially for most of Zucker’s tenure, missed profit targets by $100-120 million.
Zucker was the precocious executive producer of the NBC Today Show at 26; he rose to managing entertainment for NBC and was the executive responsible for President Donald Trump’s run on The Apprentice. Zucker was criticized by the left for giving President Trump’s campaign too much attention; now, President Trump feuds with Zucker and CNN over negative coverage.
AT&T closed their $85 billion purchase of Time Warner, which became WarnerMedia, in 2018, following resistance from the Justice Department. Many attributed the delay to President Trump’s feud with Zucker and CNN; the administration denied influencing the case.
AT&T’s stewardship of WarnerMedia has been rocky. The rollout of HBO Max did not meet expectations. In August, WarnerMedia chairman Robert Greenblatt exited after little more than a year on the job. WarnerMedia is tasked with cutting costs by as much as 20 percent, which means there will be turnover across the company. AT&T took on considerable debt in the purchase of WarnerMedia, as well as in their purchase of DirecTV for $48.5 billion in 2014. DirecTV has been rapidly losing subscribers. As of the end of 2019, AT&T had over $150 billion of debt.
AT&T is definitely not in danger of going out of business, but there are big changes on the horizon. While the Wall Street Journal does not present it with absolute certainty, it looks like Jeff Zucker’s time at CNN will wind down after the election.