CNN faces new questions about post-Jeff Zucker future
Jeff Zucker’s abrupt resignation as CNN’s president this week has roiled the network internally and sent shockwaves across the media landscape.
Zucker’s departure, which came after he acknowledged a romantic relationship with another senior CNN executive, punctuates the internal drama at the network in recent months as it deals with the fallout from the controversy surrounding former anchor Chris Cuomo.
It also comes at a time of sliding ratings for the cable news channel, a major push into streaming set for this spring and an impending merger with one of the largest media conglomerates in the world.
Zucker was set to be a big part of those plans, and his exit leaves a significant hole and questions for CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia — which itself is set to merge with Discovery.
Zucker is one of the most well-connected and influential media executives in the country, rising to prominence at NBCUniversal early in his career, spearheading an explosion in popularity for the “Today” morning show and overseeing the creation of “The Apprentice” — which ended up being the launch pad for the Trump presidency.
During his nine years at CNN, those inside the network describe Zucker as a “larger than life” figure and visionary behind its editorial brand since he took over in 2013.
CNN enjoyed a boom in ratings during former President Trump’s time in the White House, but has since seen its viewership slid dramatically, down 74 percent last month from January of the previous year, according to Nielsen Media Research data.
Zucker’s resignation was linked to an investigation stemming from a scandal that found Cuomo helped his brother Andrew Cuomo, the former governor of New York, fight back allegations of sexual misconduct. Zucker fired Chris Cuomo in December, saying he had misled executives at the network about his contacts with his brother’s aides and members of the news media covering the story.
Zucker appeared to have the loyalty of much of the talent at CNN, and several top anchors at the network have appealed directly to WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company, to express frustration and anger about its decision to oust the company’s top boss, according to published reports.
Those feelings have also shown up on CNN’s airwaves.
“These are two consenting adults who are both executives,” Alisyn Camerota, an anchor at the network and a former broadcast partner to Chris Cuomo, said while discussing Zucker on air this week. “That they can’t have a private relationship feels wrong on some level.”
On Wednesday evening, Jason Kilar, CEO of WarnerMedia, held a meeting in Washington, D.C., with CNN staffers, which multiple reports have described as tense and combative.
“I felt that this was the right course of action, full stop,” Kilar told CNN staffers, who Puck news reported grilled him about how the decision to force Zucker out was made. “I commit to you that this was carefully thought through in terms of every scenario and every possibility, and in the end this is the decision that I came to, and I am comfortable with this decision.”
Some observers say WarnerMedia’s decision to push Zucker out could be part of a larger effort to rebrand the company as less tolerant of transgressions and improper behavior, even for high-profile figures, ahead of its impending merger with media conglomerate Discovery.
“The new owner John Malone has signaled a new hardened news focus, so removing Zucker makes the makeover that was planned for CNN easier with him out of the mix,” said Eric Rose, a crisis communications expert based in Los Angeles. “There might be internal strife at CNN and it might be a pivotal moment … but at the same time they’re signaling their new way of doing business.”
In November, Malone, the longtime chairman of Liberty Media, which is a major shareholder in Discovery, told CNBC he’d like to see a shift in CNN’s editorial direction.
“I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing,” Malone said. “I do believe good journalism could have a role in this future portfolio that Discovery-TimeWarner’s going to represent.”
Jane Hall, a former cable news pundit and now a journalism instructor at American University, agrees with Malone’s assertion that there is still an audience for fact-based journalism rather than opinion-driven content in an increasingly partisan cable news landscape.
“The origins of CNN are as the first global news network,” Hall said. “The problem is that they have now created a prime-time lineup that is very personality driven. The question would be how would they do in the ratings. There certainly is enough news. Certainly CNN has quite a wealth of talent. There are plenty of very strong people who do quite well and will do quite well for them. I think there’s a bit of a dilemma about ratings on these primetime shows during the week. And as far as their news coverage, on the Sunday shows, I think it’s quite lucrative and the news casts. But how they sustain primetime kind of having created these talent oriented shows, that is the only thing that I could say is a bit of a challenge.”
Kilar announced this week three other leading executives at CNN, Michael Bass, Amy Entelis and Ken Jautz, would lead the network on an interim basis while WarnerMedia searches for Zucker’s permanent replacement.
Variety reported this week Entelis is viewed by many observers as a prime candidate to replace Zucker because of “her oversight of CNN’s push into documentaries, original series and films.”
Under Zucker’s leadership, the network has spent the last several months aggressively recruiting top journalism talent as it prepares to launch its streaming service, CNN+, hiring the likes of Chris Wallace, Kasie Hunt and Audie Cornish away from competitors to host shows on the streaming platform.
“I certainly wish my tenure here had ended differently,” Zucker wrote in his resignation memo to staffers on Wednesday. “But it was an amazing run. And I loved every minute.”