Jeff Zucker (Courtesy of Melissa Golden)
Jeff Zucker, the colorful TV executive who helped breathe new life and relevance into the CNN cable-news network, expects to leave the outlet when his contract lapses at the end of 2021.
He told staffers of his decision in a meeting Thursday morning.
“This organization has been through a lot. I’d like to be here to get us all back to a new normal, one that feels much more like it once did around here,” Zucker said during the outlet’s regular morning call among producers, according to people present. “So, as a result, I am going to stay and finish my current contract — which, as I said, will keep me here until the end of this year. At that point, I do expect to move on.” He made his announcement after CNN has enjoyed a noticeable surge in viewership, and recently finished January as the most-watched network in all of cable across its entire viewing day. Zucker’s departure will only add to the parade of senior news executives heading for the exits after an extremely punishing news cycle spurred by the Trump presidency. At MSNBC, Rashida Jones has recently taken up the reins from longtime president Phil Griffin. At ABC News, president James Goldston has announced he intends to leave at the end of March.
The announcement means all three of the nation’s best-known cable-news outlets find themselves in a moment of transition. Jones recently announced an effort to further delineate the boundaries between MSNBC’s news and opinion programming as the network tries to expand its hard news and opinion programming to streaming venues.
Fox News recently overhauled its daytime schedule and added a new opinion hour at 7 p.m. and has been facing some incursion from newly-energized right-wing outlets like Newsmax and OAN. CNN, meanwhile, has seen some of its viewership levels settle down since President Biden’s inauguration.
Zucker’s exit will likely spur some hand-wringing at CNN’s owner, WarnerMedia, and its parent, AT&T, where he also supervised sports. It’s not clear the company has immediate successors in mind for either role.
Since taking the reins of the venerable cable-news outlet in 2013, Zucker has given the once-vanilla dispenser of breaking news an entirely new image and mission. Larry King, who held forth at 9 p.m. on CNN for a quarter of a century with genial celebrity interviews, would never fit in the network’s modern lineup, where that time slot is reserved for the pugnacious Chris Cuomo, CNN’s most-watched personality. CNN has quickly become something that doesn’t just report, but holds people accountable. Some might even say it crusades. More of its anchors indulge in punditry during their hours on air.
During Zucker’s tenure, CNN built a new documentary business and launched several original non-fiction series. The network has organized a massive series of town hall programs focused on getting coronavirus information to viewers. It locked its newsgathering teeth on colorful, breaking stories like the crippled cruise ship Triumph or the 2014 downing of a Malaysian Airlines plane, then evolved to put that same focus on the myriad crises of the Trump presidency. The network tested a revival of the scuttled “Crossfire” franchise and even tested a quiz show that relied on many of the new personalities Zucker lured to its air. Anchors like Don Lemon, Brooke Baldwin, Jake Tapper and Cuomo — some of whom didn’t even work at the network before Zucker arrived — have become household names and the stuff of parodies on “Saturday Night Live.” In seven years, Zucker has become as critical an element of CNN’s DNA as Ted Turner, the guy who built the thing in the first place. Zucker told employees Thursday he had considered leaving before the end of his contract, sometime after the end of the year and as the intense post-election news cycle began to tamp down. But he decided to stay to see things through, he added. “The truth is, back in November and December, I had basically decided that it was time to move on now. But since then, I’ve had a change of heart. And I want to stay. Not forever, but for another year. And I feel really good about this decision.” There are some industry observers who believe Zucker could end up extending his term if he is enjoying it and sees new possibilities for CNN.
A change in CNN’s leadership would take place at a moment when news programming has become a more critical piece of media-industry economics. As more viewers migrate to streaming-video services for drama and comedy, live news content represents one of the main ways big U.S. media companies like ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal, Fox, Walt Disney and WarnerMedia can assemble the large, live audiences coveted by their advertisers as well as the cable and satellite distributors that make them available to consumers.
CNN is likely to figure prominently in WarnerMedia’s future plans. AT&T is focused intently on broadening out its HBO Max video-streaming hub, and CNN is expected to ramp up its focus on developing new direct-to-consumer content, and has even considered some type of business that would have users subscribe to get more information directly from CNN staffers and personnel.
There are plenty of executives who might vie for Zucker’s job, but there is some consensus that the position isn’t one that a top news producer might assume. To be certain, CNN’s senior staff contains several executives who might step into his shoes, including Michael Bass, a longtime Zucker lieutenant who oversees much of the network’s news programming, or Amy Entelis, an ABC News veteran who manages talent and has put CNN in the business of producing original series and documentaries. Andrew Morse, the former head of Bloomberg’s U.S. TV operations, has oversight of CNN’s digital operations, which have expanded greatly in recent years. And Ken Jautz, who has been with CNN and WarnerMedia for decades, has experience overseeing news operations as well as an eye for interesting personalities. It’s Jautz who has helped launch anchors such as Nancy Grace, Robin Meade and Glenn Beck.
A WarnerMedia spokesperson did not immediately respond to the company’s plan for transition at CNN or Turner Sports during Zucker’s last year at the helm.
There is also no shortage of TV executives with news experience sitting on the sidelines, including Ben Sherwood, the former Disney executive who helped propel “Good Morning America” to a new role of dominance among morning-news viewers, or Jim Bell, the former longtime head of NBC’s “Today” and Olympics coverage.
But Zucker remains a unique personality, a relentless tinkerer and entrepreneur who managed to retain those qualities even as he took on button-down roles with massive corporate oversight. Someone new will eventually take over as head of CNN. Replacing Jeff Zucker, however, may be an impossible task.
Variety's Brian Steinberg contributed to this post.