CNN head Jeff Zucker will stay with the network through 2021
CNN attracted its largest audiences in history in 2020 and has been riding high in the ratings since election day.
The news channel finished January as the most-watched network in all of cable according to Nielsen, surpassing MSNBC and Fox News. The surge in viewing tempted CNN President Jeff Zucker to exit early this year while the network is on top.
But Zucker told the Los Angeles Times he will inform his staff Thursday that he is remaining with the WarnerMedia unit through his current contract, which runs through 2021.
“I love my job, it’s really that simple,” Zucker, 55, said in a phone conversation this week from Florida, where he was visiting his parents. “I have an incredible vantage point here. I felt that I wanted to honor the contractual commitment.”
At the South by Southwest festival in March, CNN chief Jeff Zucker was presented with a question he’s been hearing since President Trump’s stunning White House win in 2016.
Zucker acknowledged he talked last fall with Jason Kilar, chief executive of CNN parent WarnerMedia, about leaving early in 2021. He also discussed the possibility with his staff, leading many of his deputies and friends to predict his departure after President Biden’s inauguration, and ahead of any drop in cable news ratings that many media experts predicted once President Trump exited the White House.
The arrival of a new administration, especially one that is radically different from Trump’s, became a demarcation point for other news executives considering retirement or a change of scenery.
Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, former MSNBC chief Phil Griffin and outgoing ABC News President James Goldston all used the incoming administration as an exit ramp from their posts. Zucker was thinking along the same lines.
There were also questions swirling about how Zucker was faring amid the sweeping changes at WarnerMedia, where nearly every other senior executive has been replaced as owner AT&T attempts to reinvent the company for the future of streaming video. Zucker was said to be concerned about CNN being subjected to the cost-cutting that has occurred across the parent company.
Zucker would not comment on whether he got any assurances that his unit would be spared, although colleagues said privately it is unlikely he would stick around to downsize the operation he spent the last eight years building up.
The media executive pondered his future when he took time off around Christmas. When he returned in January, the network was immersed in the coverage of Trump’s attempts to intimidate Georgia officials into overturning the state’s presidential vote results. His engagement led colleagues to believe that he was not ready to leave the job.
Zucker concurred, noting the events after the election that included Trump’s efforts to overturn the results with unfounded claims of voter fraud and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by his supporters, followed by a second impeachment.
“The energy of this news cycle has gone on longer than anyone could have imagined; it is still continuing, and I’m still excited about that,” he said.
Zucker will also continue to oversee Turner Sports for WarnerMedia.
Zucker joined CNN in 2012, two years after serving as president of NBCUniversal. He made his name as a wunderkind news producer in the 1990s, turning around the fortunes of NBC’s morning franchise “Today” when he was in his 20s.
While overseeing CNN, the channel has experienced its largest profits in history, topping $1 billion annually over the last few years. He expanded the network’s business, investing in the production of original series and nonfiction films and building a library of durable programming that can attract audiences during lulls in the news cycle. CNN’s digital platform is also the most popular source of news online, according to Comscore statistics.
Zucker is popular with the rank and file at the network because of his hands-on approach to producing the news. He also became a feisty defender of CNN, which before his arrival had gotten used to being publicly ridiculed by the late Fox News chief Roger Ailes.
“CNN has a lot more confidence,” Zucker said. “We used to get bullied. We are not bullied by anybody now.”
Zucker’s career has complicated ties to Trump, especially during his CNN tenure. Zucker scored his biggest hit in his years at NBC with Trump as the host of his reality competition series “The Apprentice,” which gave the real estate mogul massive media exposure that helped launch his political career.
Once Trump declared his candidacy for president in 2015, Zucker, like other news executives, recognized that the provocateur was a big draw for viewers. Trump’s rallies and interviews generated ratings surges, which led to more airtime. Zucker later acknowledged that CNN gave too much exposure to his campaign events.
But Trump, who believed he helped Zucker’s career at NBC and considered him a friend, did not get any breaks from CNN after his 2016 election victory. Trump felt betrayed by CNN’s tough coverage and made the network his primary target in rants against the press, which were echoed by his supporters in right-wing media.
While CNN has long positioned itself as a down-the-middle purveyor of news and information, Zucker gave his anchors and hosts the freedom to speak more frankly when dealing with Trump’s unorthodox, bizarre and legally dubious actions as president.
“I do think that there was this feeling at CNN that they had to be neutral to the point of bland, and what I think we instilled as a team was that what you needed to do is tell the truth,” Zucker said. “We gave the anchors, reporters and producers of our shows the freedom to tell the truth, even if the truth came off as tough sometimes.”
Veteran TV journalists such as Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon became prime-time stars and high-profile voices in the national discourse under Zucker’s watch. The COVID-19 pandemic and social justice protests following the police killing of George Floyd helped the network to reassert the strength of its corps of correspondents such as Sara Sidner and experts such as Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
The Louisiana native, who joined CNN in 2006 and is the only Black cable news anchor in prime time, is clearly energized by having a role in shaping the current national discourse on race relations.
Zucker currently has no plans beyond 2021. Opportunities are likely to become clearer when the pandemic subsides and business returns to normal.
But his commitment to CNN for the rest of the year rules out the possibility of him running for mayor of New York City, a rumored idea that he has shut down numerous times. The party primary for mayoral candidates is in June and the general election is in November.
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