A Jeff Zucker-CNN combination is not as simple as it seems

Hardly a day goes by without speculation that former NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker is the leading candidate to succeed Jim Walton as president of Time Warner’s CNN Worldwide when he resigns at year end.

The case for Zucker is easy to make. Before he became a media bigwig, he was a top news executive who knew how to balance good journalism with strong ratings. His run as executive producer of NBC’s morning program “Today” was incredibly successful and his news experience isn’t limited to the AM hours. He’s helped produce the Olympics, ran NBC election coverage, presidential inaugurations and its Persian Gulf War coverage. He has real TV journalism chops.

He also knows how to manage the books. “Today” was incredibly profitable during Zucker’s watch. Big egos aren’t a problem either. Not only did Zucker keep “Today” running smoothly, he went on to run all of NBCUniversal where he had to deal with high-maintenance stars and executives on a daily basis. While Zucker’s decision-making was sometimes questioned (Jay Leno in prime time), his leadership skills were not.


So why not rush right out and sign him up for CNN?

Because while Zucker easily has the ability to pump new life into CNN, he is such a high-profile executive that his hiring could create more problems than it would solve.

Before even touching on the potential drama that would take place in the executive suites at Time Warner with a Zucker hire, a basic question needs to be addressed.

Where would CNN be based under Zucker? While much of CNN is produced out of New York, it is headquartered in Atlanta and Time Warner saves a lot of money by operating it from there. Zucker, however, would likely not want to relocate, so Time Warner would have to decide if it wants to make the financial commitment required to bring CNN to him. And that’s not chump change.

If CNN remains in Atlanta, then Zucker would spend half his time on a corporate jet instead of being in the trenches with the team that so desperately needs a leader.

Then there is the impact Zucker’s hire could have beyond CNN.

Currently, CNN is part of Turner Broadcasting, which is run by Phil Kent, a low-key executive who avoids the spotlight as much as Zucker embraces it. If Zucker is running CNN, he would in theory report to Kent. Would that fly with Zucker? In his old life he reported to the chief executive of General Electric. If he took CNN he might want a direct line to Time Warner Chief Jeff Bewkes. See, this is starting to get complicated.

What if CNN is not enough for Zucker? His last job had him overseeing NBC, Universal Pictures and several big cable networks including CNBC, MSNBC, USA and Bravo. He’d have to adjust his ego to the idea of having a lot less turf than he was accustomed to having.

And if Zucker has his eyes on a bigger prize, say, running all of Turner Broadcasting, why would Kent risk hiring him? Kent wants someone to fix CNN, not someone who may be focused on their next land grab.

Kent is not the only executive who might have reasons to be wary of Zucker. Right now, Turner Broadcasting and HBO are separate operations but down the road Time Warner might decide it is better to combine the two cable programming units.

That could lead to a bake-off between HBO Chief Executive Richard Plepler and whoever is running Turner. Now, such a scenario may be inevitable regardless of whether Zucker is hired, but if he is it could complicate things further.

Bewkes already has his hands full right now trying to manage the transition that will take place at Warner Bros. when longtime chief Barry Meyer steps down next year. No one is suggesting that Zucker could parlay CNN into that job (Warner Bros. TV chief Bruce Rosenblum appears to be in the driver’s seat).

Making sure the changing of the guard at the Burbank studio runs smoothly is a top priority for Bewkes and he probably doesn’t need any fireworks in the other Time Warner fiefdoms distracting him.

So while on paper Zucker may seem like the no-brainer to run CNN but in reality there is a lot more than just CNN for Time Warner and Bewkes to take into consideration with regards to Zucker.

Zucker is currently executive producing Katie Couric’s new daytime show and is keeping mum on all the CNN talk. While running Couric’s show is not the same as running a major media conglomerate, he knows who’s boss there and, if the show’s a hit, he can make a lot more money.


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Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.