CNN president Jeff Zucker announced in February that he intended to depart CNN after his contract expires at the end of the year. That gave CNN about 10 months to find a successor in a complicated landscape hit by both habit changes and Donald Trump leaving the White House. For now, however, it appears less certain that CNN will have to look ahead to life beyond Zucker.
As a result of an industry-shifting merger between AT&T and Discovery that was announced on Monday, friends of Zucker told Axios that Zucker may drop his plans to leave CNN.
“I’m told that nothing has been decided. But absent this tectonic media shift, Zucker — who’s chairman, WarnerMedia News and Sports, and president of CNN Worldwide — was gone,” the outlet reports. “Now, the door is open for him to stay.”
Should Zucker stay, David Zaslav, the president and chief executive officer of Discovery Inc., will receive the credit (or the blame, depending on how you look at it.)
In light of the news, a person with knowledge of the matter told CNN’s Brian Stelter that current WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar is negotiating an exit from WarnerMedia, of which CNN is a unit.
Zucker’s relationship with Zaslav spans decades. The two first worked together at NBC in the 1990s.
While discussing the merger with CNN’s Poppy Harlow Monday, Zaslav said he has not spoken to Zucker “at all” about staying or going. But Zaslav adds that Zucker is a “good friend” and a “hugely, hugely talented” media executive.
“He and I have to talk about what he wants to do,” Zaslav said. “Hoping there will be an opportunity for Jeff to stay with us.”
With or without Zucker, CNN’s future is mired in uncertainty. In addition to getting spun off by AT&T, the network has struggled to maintain viewers in Joe Biden’s first 100 days in the White House.
All eyes are now on CNN’s plans to enter the Streaming Wars to change the network’s trajectory. Fox News has Fox Nation, which features its biggest star, Tucker Carlson. NBC has begun to give MSNBC a presence on Peacock, extending the Meet the Press franchise and adding appearances from the cast of Morning Joe.
Though AT&T-Discovery has HBO Max and Discovery+, CNN may go in its own direction. Zaslav says he will focus particularly on supporting a global streaming platform for the CNN brand.
Zucker may have many critics, yet considering the uncertainties that CNN faces, keeping the experienced exec on board is better than the alternative options.
The regulatory review of the AT&T-Discovery deal will likely take a year.