Jeff Zucker’s leadership helped the network become the dominant name in cable news during Donald Trump’s presidency.
“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 in a Thursday call with CNN producers that was obtained by Variety. “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.”
It is unclear who will replace Zucker. A representative from CNN parent company WarnerMedia did not return a request for comment.
Zucker, who joined CNN in 2013, helped catapult the outlet to the top of the cable news game during Donald Trump’s presidency. CNN broke its viewership records in 2020 and outperformed longtime ratings leader Fox News in the key 25-54 age demographic in Q4. CNN’s ratings success has continued into the new year: January 2021 marked CNN’s most-watched month on record, helped in part by the outlet’s coverage of the pro-Donald Trump mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
CNN was not a ratings powerhouse when Zucker joined the outlet. As CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter wrote on Thursday, the news industry was rife with stories about CNN’s “identity crisis” in 2013, when Fox News and MSNBC were cable’s top news channels. Zucker’s hiring led to a reinvention of the network’s coverage and resulted in several new initiatives, such as various town hall programs and documentaries. Prime-time anchors like Chris Cuomo, Don Lemon, and Anderson Cooper became as well-known as Hollywood stars due to their political coverage and commentary, while CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta has become one of the most recognizable faces of coronavirus coverage over the last year.
“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 told the Los Angeles Times, which broke the news about Zucker’s decision. “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.”
Though CNN thrived during the 2016 presidential election and Trump’s ensuing presidency, the network’s success under Zucker was not without controversy. CNN received criticism during the 2016 presidential election season for airing large numbers of Trump rallies — which were major draws for news channels — without edits or fact-checking. Zucker said it was a mistake to do so in October 2016. Zucker’s relationship with Trump has been complicated; Zucker, who previously worked as president of NBC Entertainment, greenlit Trump’s “The Apprentice” in 2004, which significantly raised the national profile of the eventual president. As CNN’s coverage of Trump toughened, the outlet became one of Trump’s primary targets in his frequent rants against the media during his presidency.
CNN, which is known for its myriad pundits, also received criticism for hiring former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a political commentator three days after he was fired from Trump’s election campaign; Lewandowski resigned several months later. CNN’s hiring of Sarah Isgur, who served as spokesperson for former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as political editor in 2019 generated similar controversy and her role was swiftly changed to political analyst.
Controversies aside, Zucker’s leadership has reaped record viewership and financial gains for CNN and it is unclear how his departure will affect the media organization.
Zucker’s exit has been expected; The Wall Street Journal reported in Oct. 2020 that the CNN president was considering leaving the network shortly after the 2020 election, despite his contract running through the end of 2021. The Journal’s report suggested that Zucker was “blindsided” by restructures at WarnerMedia, which was acquired by AT&T in 2018, and had “friction” with WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar. Zucker is one of the few WarnerMedia executives who has stayed with the company following the AT&T acquisition.
Although CNN entered 2021 as the leader of cable news ratings, cable television is continuing to decline in popularity as more consumers move to streaming services. WarnerMedia invested significantly in its HBO Max streaming service, which launched in May 2020, but the service has been slow to gain traction and industry analysts partially blamed its failures on WarnerMedia’s large wave of layoffs that were enacted several months ago. The Los Angeles Times reported that Zucker was concerned that CNN could become a target for cost-cutting.
Though news programming is largely untested on leading streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+, newer services like NBCUniversal’s Peacock and HBO Max have dabbled in the genre; a handful of CNN-branded series and films are available on the latter service. The New York Times’ report on Zucker’s decision to step down included a note that a CNN-branded streaming service is in development but no details about that platform have been officially announced.
Zucker is one of several high-profile media executives who have announced their intent to step down following the 2020 presidential election. Former MSNBC president Phil Griffin was succeeded by Rashida Jones on February 1, while Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron and ABC News president James Goldston recently announced their intent to step down later in the year.