CNN’s Jeff Zucker Sees His Fortunes Change Because of His Bromance With David Zaslav

From a New York Times story by Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin headlined “CNN’s Zucker, Reunited With a Powerful Friend, Sees His Fortunes Change”:

Last summer, the future looked hazy for Jeff Zucker, the pugnacious president of CNN.

His network was run by AT&T, a telecom company awkwardly experimenting in television. He was clashing with a new boss, Jason Kilar, who knew more about streaming video analytics than journalism. Donald J. Trump — whose supporters chanted “CNN sucks” — was vying for a second term as president. At 55, Mr. Zucker told friends it might be time for him to move on.

One year later, AT&T is retreating from the media business, Mr. Kilar is negotiating his exit, and Mr. Trump is gone. And Mr. Zucker may now have the chance to work for one of his closest pals in business and in life, a golf buddy and confidant who the CNN president once said was “the best friend that anyone could ever want, and I’m lucky that he’s mine.”

Mr. Zucker’s partner in this bromance is David Zaslav, 61, the chief executive of Discovery Inc., which on Monday announced it would merge with CNN and other AT&T-owned media properties. The development has re-energized Mr. Zucker’s long-term prospects at the cable company and prompted sighs of relief in the upper ranks of CNN’s newsroom.

If the deal closes, Mr. Zaslav would oversee Mr. Zucker’s portfolio of CNN and Turner sports programming for the foreseeable future….That has changed the calculus for Mr. Zucker, who had previously said he expected to leave CNN at the end of 2021 but now, according to friends, may be open to a longer stay….

In a staff memo on Monday, Mr. Zucker made no mention of his 30 years of friendship with Mr. Zaslav: their early years at NBC together, regular kibitz sessions on the phone, or weekend golf games in the Hamptons where their sprawling estates sit a 10-minute drive apart. (Mr. Zucker is inland; Mr. Zaslav has the oceanfront view.) Nor did he point out that Mr. Zaslav’s daughter is a producer in CNN’s Washington bureau.

But his excitement was obvious. “This is big and exciting news for our company,” Mr. Zucker wrote. “And, I think it’s fair to say, really good news for us.”…

All agreed that Mr. Zaslav’s takeover raised the odds that Mr. Zucker would stay put, perhaps in an expanded role that encompasses more of Discovery and Warner’s combined news and sports assets. Discovery, for instance, owns Eurosport, a European network with broadcast rights to the Olympics and major tournaments in tennis and golf….

The two men started at NBC in the late 1980s. They trained under Jack Welch, the chairman of General Electric, which controlled the media company, and ascended during NBC’s “Must See TV” golden age in the 1990s.

“It was a time that we would look at each other, and we believed that anything was possible,” Mr. Zaslav once said, reflecting on their salad days at NBC. Mr. Zucker eventually became chief executive; Mr. Zaslav left to run Discovery in 2007….

In 2019, when Mr. Zaslav presented a career achievement award to Mr. Zucker at a starry luncheon in Midtown Manhattan, he called the CNN president “one of the greatest media leaders of all time.”

Inside CNN, the reaction to this week’s merger announcement has been happiness and relief. Mr. Zucker’s loyalists were uneasy about the prospect of his departure, and rumors flew that AT&T, facing a giant debt burden, would consider selling the highly profitable news network, perhaps leaving it in the hands of an owner less than committed to its journalistic mission….

CNN is just one element of the combined company that Mr. Zaslav hopes to be steering as soon as the middle of next year. He is expected to go to Los Angeles in the next few weeks to tour the Warner Bros. lot and meet with Hollywood executives.

Mr. Zaslav recently purchased the Beverly Hills mansion of the late Hollywood super-producer Robert Evans. His taste for high-end real estate offers another link to Mr. Zucker.

At NBC, Mr. Zucker engineered a changeover at “The Tonight Show” in which Conan O’Brien moved from New York to Los Angeles to succeed Jay Leno. It did not work out so well, and Mr. O’Brien eventually quit.

But Mr. O’Brien’s West Coast move helped prompt him to sell his Manhattan apartment on Central Park West. The buyer, for $25 million, was Mr. Zaslav.

Michael M. Grynbaum is a media correspondent covering the intersection of business, culture and politics.

John Koblin covers the television industry. He reports on the companies and personalities behind the scripted TV boom, and the networks that broadcast the news. He previously covered fashion.

Speak Your Mind