• The exit of Jeff Zucker raises big questions about what’s next for CNN and launch of streamer CNN+.
  • Discovery will take a firmer hand in the running of the company than current owner AT&T has done.
  • Key questions include whether CNN+ can survive as a stand-alone paid service or will become part of HBO Max.

In the wake of CNN President Jeff Zucker’s resignation, a huge question mark now hangs over the future of the 40-plus-year-old cable news network and its yet-to-be-launched paid subscription service CNN+. 

In a matter of months, the $1.7 billion global news gathering operation will be run by Discovery, whose acquisition of CNN parent WarnerMedia is expected to pass regulatory approval and close as soon as May. The new company, to be known as Warner Bros. Discovery, and its CEO David Zaslav — who has led basic cable giant Discovery for 15 years — will take a more active interest in the content than its present owners AT&T.

Zucker’s departure also gives the company a chance to rethink its news and sports strategy. (As chairman of WarnerMedia’s sports division, Zucker oversaw the NBA relationship at the company’s Turner unit.)

Discovery’s most important shareholder, John Malone, has previously made his views known on what direction CNN should take. In a November interview with CNBC, Malone said, “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with and, you know, actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.” 

“A coward’s way out would be to sell it,” he continued. “I do believe that good journalism could have a role in this future portfolio that Discovery-Time Warner’s going to represent.” 

“CNN got too caught up in Trump and not what America wanted as far as information dissemination. CNN has got to get back to the facts, newsgathering, and trust strategy,” former CNN chief operating officer Greg D’Alba, who left the company in 2014, told Insider.

In recent years, CNN has navigated criticism over the aggressive political viewpoints of some of its opinion hosts, as well as a variety of missteps — from reinstating legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin after he exposed himself on a


Zoom

with colleagues at the New Yorker, to allowing anchor Chris Cuomo to interview his brother, then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, during the pandemic. 

Chris Cuomo ultimately was fired for his involvement in aiding Andrew Cuomo as he maneuvered to stay in office amid multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Chris Cuomo had also previously faced accusations of inappropriate touching from his former ABC News boss, Shelley Ross.

CNN delivered huge audiences during the Trump presidency, but ratings have been down across the dial in cable TV news compared to 2020 — and the audience for CNN’s 9 p.m. slot once occupied by Chris Cuomo has dropped precipitously. In January, the hour drew 617,000 total viewers, a fraction of Cuomo’s 3.58 million viewers during election-fueled 2020, according to Nielsen numbers.

For Discovery’s Zaslav, Zucker’s departure represents a dodged bullet — an HR and legal problem that AT&T CEO John Stankey and WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar have had to navigate along with the ongoing dispute over Chris Cuomo’s unpaid contract. 

Zucker’s resignation arose from his acknowledgment, during an internal investigation regarding Chris Cuomo’s conflicts and conduct, of a relationship with CNN exec Allison Gollust. News of Zucker’s exit came one day after AT&T said it would execute a spinoff rather than a split-off of WarnerMedia in the sale to Discovery.

In as few as three months, Zaslav will have the rein to make seismic changes. Among them: who will lead the network (Kilar on Wednesday named three veteran CNN execs as interim leaders); who can replace Chris Cuomo and what to do on Sunday mornings where broadcast networks and cable TV hosts compete for the best guests and the most incisive commentary. 

Other questions to be answered include just how much opinion and emotion CNN anchors should be sharing on air, and whether a paid subscription product, CNN+, can survive as a standalone or will be folded into WarnerMedia’s flagship streamer


HBO Max

.

“What do they do now with a leadership structure they thought was baked?” a former WarnerMedia executive said to Insider. “They have to redraw their battle plans. …[CNN+ is] a direct competitor to HBO Max. So what’s the future of that? It’s going to launch — will it be a priority?”

Speed is of the essence, D’Alba said. “The problem with big companies and especially when there’s a merger, is how quickly can Zaslav move without going through numerous steps with the board. They don’t have time.” 

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