“CNN Light—Until It Isn’t”: Jeff Zucker Will Build His News Trojan Horse

Jeff Zucker
Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for CNN
Dylan Byers
September 29, 2021

When Jeff Zucker announced plans to launch CNN+, the news channel’s forthcoming direct-to-consumer streaming service, he and his chief digital officer Andrew Morse characterized it as, in Morse’s words, “the most important launch for CNN since Ted Turner launched the network in June of 1980.” The statement, deemed hyperbolic in some circles, elicited some eye-rolling from industry insiders who know that linear television will remain CNN’s core business and primary focus for at least a few more years to come. During that time, CNN+ will likely be a home for what is essentially CNN bonus material, niche programming and some fliers, like a recently announced show built around Scott Galloway, the exhibitionist professor and entrepreneur.

And yet what Morse said was true in at least one sense: When the cable bundle finally does collapse, presumably a few years from now, CNN+ will be the lifeboat that CNN uses to shepherd itself to a new terra firma on HBO Max—or whatever David Zaslav decides to call the Warner Bros. Discovery streaming service. “CNN will remain a cable outlet for a very long time, and it will make a lot of money doing so,” one veteran television executive said. “The HBO Max bundle will offer CNN+, which will be CNN light—until it isn’t.”

Zucker will be around at least long enough to witness the CNN+ launch. News of his departure has been rife within the media. Earlier this year, for instance, the CNN chief said he intended to leave at year’s end. But three network sources tell me he now plans to stay on at least through the Discovery-WarnerMedia merger, which they believe will close in the second quarter of 2022. Whether Zucker stays beyond then—in his current role as chairman of news and sports, or in an elevated role—is yet to be determined. Amid internal talk of a big promotion at Warner Bros. Discovery, he has told at least one friend that he would be happier staying in his current position with a focus on building out the new company’s global news and sports businesses. (Zucker did not respond to an invitation for an interview).

This mandate would include leveraging CNN+ to position Warner Bros. Discovery as the leading news provider among streaming services—a play that will rely entirely on CNN, since Discovery has no news brand of its own, and HBO’s Casey Bloys has decided not to renew Axios on HBO, though the option for specials remains, two sources familiar with that decision tell me. The Axios show could continue to exist at Warner Bros. Discovery through a deal with CNN, but HBO executives have lost their appetite for news programming as they focus on building out their streaming business, HBO sources said. Axios’ content, meanwhile, remains highly in demand in the I.P. and streaming market, and the company is the focus of countless M&A and SPAC chatter.

The inception of CNN+, in other words, presents a unique opportunity for Warner Bros. Discovery in the streaming space. Netflix, Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime want nothing to do with traditional television news, high-level insiders at all three companies have told me. From their vantage point, it’s a messy and polarizing business, fueled by big egos with diminishing audiences. More importantly, it’s not all that economically significant once you separate it from linear television, where the main revenue drivers are affiliate and subscriber fees.

The calculation is different for legacy media companies with strong news brands. In a post-linear world, NBC can use Today and Meet The Press and MSNBC’s opinion programming, for instance, to bring more subscribers to Peacock; ABC can use Good Morning America to enhance the value proposition of the Disney+ bundle. As I reported last week, Rachel Maddow’s blockbuster all-around deal seems like a harbinger of how legacy players can incentivize cable talent to help them pivot toward streaming. Maddow’s inevitable departure from MSNBC’s prime-time lineup will certainly leave a hole, but her talents and imprimatur (and audience) will have more long-term value on Peacock. 

What value can CNN offer to the Warner Bros. Discovery bundle? Under Zucker, the network has become personality-driven and embraced a far more opinionated posture than at any point prior to his tenure. It stands to reason that some of this content will live on in streaming. But CNN’s greatest asset may actually be a part of its DNA that has been integral to the brand since its beginning: the global, 24-hour news offering—the kind of on-the-ground newsgathering service you rely on during a contested election, when a bomb goes off in New York City, or a revolution starts in the Middle East. Of all the American news brands, CNN may be the only one with the editorial resources and global scale to justify a continued existence in this format.

In the near-term, however, Zucker will have the dual task of sustaining the linear business while trying to build a streaming service that is actually interesting and robust—a challenge NBC News faces with its own effort to build lifeboats via streaming services like Today All Day and NBC News Now. The challenge here is that the top talents and most popular programming inevitably stay on cable, where the companies make billions and need ratings. NBC News is slowly, slowly bringing higher-tier talents to streaming—including ABC News alum Tom Llamas—but from the vantage point of NBC executives, the daily programming on streaming is largely an afterthought when compared to cable. From the vantage point of the rank and file, it is often seen as the place where older talents go to do more work than they signed up for, and younger talents wait for an invitation to broadcast and cable that may never come.

Can CNN+ be better than that in its early days? There’s certainly an opening to create new kinds of programming that eschews the familiar CNN model and creates new opportunities for new talents. As for leveraging the existing CNN talent, a spokesperson told me “very few if any” of CNN’s on-air personalities “will move over entirely” to CNN+. “If they are existing CNN employees, they will do it in addition to their linear work,” she said.

And yet, Zucker’s talent lies, in part, on his ability to manage high-wattage stars. He may prove more successful than his peers at incentivizing one or two of his broadcasters to lead the way into the network’s streaming future. And getting on that lifeboat early might not be such a bad idea, because none of the cable news outlets will ever be as big as they were when 80 or 90 million people were paying affiliate fees as part of a larger bundle. “CNN+ is a solid strategic move,” the television executive said. “It’s a hedge against the collapse of the world that we know. But it needs to be judged by lifeboat standards: how much of the core CNN business and how many employees will it be able to save some day. I think everyone realizes that there will eventually be casualties and losses. The question is how many.”