“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).