What a Post-Zucker CNN Could Look Like

By A.J. Katz 

It has been less than a week since the shocking exit of CNN boss and WarnerMedia News and Sports chairman Jeff Zucker, who was forced to resign after failing to disclose a romantic relationship with his communications chief Allison Gollust, which is a violation of company policy. To say there’s a lot to process and figure out over there is a major understatement. CNN will have to replace a cable news icon who changed the network forever. In addition to Zucker, CNN is supposed to debut a new streaming news service within the next two months, CNN+, the company’s most significant product launch in years. And there’s also the imminent merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery (into a company that will be called Warner Bros. Discovery), an event which will most certainly bring about change in many ways.

CNN staffers are reportedly reeling, and here are some questions worth asking as the company figures out its post-Zucker future:

So, where does CNN go from here?

It’s not totally clear. AT&T CEO John Stankey and Discovery CEO David Zaslav sat down for separate interviews with CNBC Squawk Box on Friday. Neither gave much insight into why Zucker resigned and what’s next for the network (although they did praise CNN+). In regard to Zucker, Stankey said he doesn’t comment on personnel matters, although he made the curious statement that Zucker was the one who chose to resign. However, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar was caught on a recording speaking to CNN DC staff, and made it clear that it was in fact not Zucker’s decision to leave. Zaslav, who will run Warner Bros. Discovery and is a longtime friend of Zucker’s, didn’t comment on the exit either, saying, “We don’t own the company yet. We’re not involved in any of that.”

Kilar, the man who forced Zucker to resign, is not popular at CNN right now. That’s probably putting it mildly. In light of Zucker’s departure, Kilar tapped a trio of executive vice presidents to run CNN Worldwide on an interim basis: U.S. programming boss Michael Bass, talent development and original series/films boss Amy Entelis and business affairs boss Ken Jautz.

Reports are that the veteran executive trio will be running things through the close of the merger, which is anticipated to take place in the second quarter. But what will happen after that? Will Zaslav choose one of these three executives to be the new president of CNN? We feel Entelis has a relatively good shot to earn the top role. She runs talent development for the network and managing on-air talent is of grave importance during this time of transition, especially considering news reports that many of the network’s high-profile personalities aren’t pleased about Zucker’s exit and are wary about what could come next. Entelis has the trust of talent, she has been at CNN for a while and knows the place. Additionally, CNN has never had a female president. This would be as good a time as ever for the incoming regime to make a change, but not too big of a change.

If the new owners want to stay internal, two other candidates should be Virginia Moseley, CNN’s svp of U.S. newsgathering, and Andrew Morse, CNN’s digital chief and the executive in charge of CNN+.

How long will CNN evp and cmo Allison Gollust stay around?

Zucker and Gollust go back nearly 20 years working together at NBCUniversal and then at CNN, beginning in 2013. Both executives are currently divorced. Of their relationship, Gollust said in a statement, “Recently, our relationship changed during Covid.” However, it’s common knowledge among multiple sources both in and outside CNN that their romantic relationship began much earlier than the couple are saying publicly. By publicly committing themselves to a timeline that is at odds with that, Gollust and Zucker may have opened the door to further problems if contradictory evidence about their relationship comes to light. While Gollust remains at CNN for now, that might not be the case after the merger goes through in the spring.

What does this mean for the 9 p.m. time slot?

Zucker was intimately involved in every decision concerning the network; from control room decisions, to daily editorial calls, to programming decisions. CNN still has to name a 9 p.m. host and Zucker was likely going to have the final say on that.

The network has used a variety of guest-hosts at 9 p.m. since Chris Cuomo was fired last December. They’ve gone with two hours of Anderson Cooper 360. Brianna Keilar has guest-hosted the hour, as have Jim Acosta, Michael Smerconish and Laura Coates. Frankly, none of the guest-hosts have rated all that well. Hour No. 2 of AC360, ironically, has performed the best, losing relatively little of the first hour audience.

That said, the 9 p.m. time slot, one that was once held by Larry King, is pivotal for CNN. MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show has dominated its CNN timeslot competition for years. However, Maddow is now winding down her presence on MSNBC’s 9 p.m. hour, which could give CNN an opening in the timeslot for the first time in a while. Needless to say, this is a big decision for CNN and the network will want to get it right.

One idea is Don Lemon at 9 p.m., Acosta, Keilar, or Coates at 10 p.m., and Smerconish at 11 p.m. Or the network can return to two hours of AC360 (8-10 p.m.), which is what its schedule looked like before the 2018 launch of Cuomo Primetime—and two hours of Don Lemon Primetime (10 p.m.-12 a.m.)—and keep everyone else in their current timeslots.

The network will likely stick with guest hosts through the merger and then make the big 9 p.m. timeslot decision after a new president is installed.

Will the Zucker exit impact the CNN+ launch plans?

Zucker was a driving force behind this mammoth streaming news service, which last July announced a Q1 2022 launch. That means sometime before the end of next month. Will the debut be pushed, or will CNN stick with the original plans? So far the network isn’t saying, but it’s going to have to decide soon.

UPDATE: According to a CNN+ spokesperson, “I will gladly say on the record that we are still very much on track to launch CNN+ on time. Last week’s changes do not impact the launch of CNN+.”

Is there any chance that Zucker returns post-merger?

It seems as though the majority of CNN staffers, particularly the most visible ones, are extremely loyal to Zucker and would push for his return—and Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who will run Warner Bros. Discovery, is a close friend of his. So while a Zucker comeback isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility, it’s still likely a long shot: Discovery is probably going to wash its hands of the situation and move on.

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