Soledad O’Brien: Jeff Zucker ‘Has Done Exactly What He Said He Would Do’

By Gail Shister 

What a difference 48 hours can make.

Less than two days after Thursday’s announcement that Soledad O’Brien would leave CNN to start her own production company, she says she had already received four pitches for documentaries and other long-form programming.

“I’ll consider all pitches,” says O’Brien, 46, who will continue as anchor of ‘Starting Point’ until May or June. “’Excited’ is an overused word, but I’m excited to take this step.”

O’Brien’s Starfish Media Group, to launch in June, will produce three documentaries for CNN in 2014, including another of her ‘Black in America’ series. She is free to create content for other networks, platforms and partners.

She is also free to appear on the air elsewhere, but “odds of that in the near future are low,” she says. “They’re probably high in the far future.”

O’Brien’s departure had been expected since Jeff Zucker, her old boss at NBC’s ‘Today,’ was named president of CNN Worldwide on Nov. 29. He lured Chris Cuomo from ABC to anchor a revamped morning show; 7 p.m. anchor Erin Burnett is expected to join him.

O’Brien – dubbed ‘Cable TV’s New Morning Thunder’ by Newsweek – continues to sing Zucker’s praises. She predicts he’ll do great things at her soon-to-be alma mater.

“CNN absolutely, positively needed to be changed,” she says. “People outside and inside the building knew that. Jeff has done exactly what he said would do. For the people who are there, he’s going to be great. He brings a sense of focus and vision.”

Her frequent meetings with Zucker have been “very collegial,” in O’Brien’s words. “I like the guy. I think he likes me. We have not had one negative conversation. He wanted me to be part of the team. I wanted to be part of the team.”

O’Brien enjoys anchoring and says she’s good at it, but she’s in no hurry to find another show. Starfish will be her fulltime focus, she says. She plans to start with a small staff, which may, at some point, include some of her current coworkers.

Because she has no anchor job on the horizon, “People assume I’m upset,” she says. “They look at me to see how I’m going to react. Nobody knows exactly what I’m going to do. They think I’m trying to get a slot somewhere.”

In fact, O’Brien had been thinking of launching her own company for several years, she says, to combine the brand she had built in her catalog of 30 documentaries for CNN with ownership of the new content she would create.

“I know what I’m good at,” O’Brien says. “I know what I like. I want to spend my time knee-deep in stories that interest me. At this point in my career, it’s a huge luxury.”

Another huge luxury for O’Brien: “A very easy summer, though I’m not exactly great at taking time off.”

After that, her “morning thunder” will consist of “sleeping in [as opposed to getting up at 3 a.m. for her anchor job], taking my kids to school, focusing on my work and considering things down the road.”

Let it rain.