Zaz Comes to CNN

WBD C.E.O. David Zaslav, at the end of the 9 a.m. call, described CNN as an “unmoored boat.” But, he said, “this is our company, our boat. We all have an oar.”
WBD C.E.O. David Zaslav described CNN as an “unmoored boat.” But, he said, “this is our company, our boat. We all have an oar.” Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
March 4, 2022

At 9:30 a.m. on Thursday morning, the interim leadership at CNN—Michael Bass, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz, affectionately referred to by insiders as “The Trio”—put on their coats and left CNN headquarters at Hudson Yards for a meeting with David Zaslav, the soon-to-be president and C.E.O. of Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN’s soon-to-be parent company. The meeting, which also included CNN’s chief financial officer Brad Ferrer, and top lawyer David Vigilante, marked the formal beginning of what all parties hope will be a new chapter for the news network, sources familiar with the meeting told me—a chapter in which the drama surrounding Jeff Zucker, Allison Gollust, and Jason Kilar can be put in the rear-view mirror and the network can start telling a more favorable story about its industry-leading newsgathering capability and its coverage of the war in Ukraine.

After Zucker’s surprise defenestration, CNN was wracked by anger and frustration. Everyone reading this story has also read the transcript of Jake Tapper berating Kilar for his mismanagement of the crisis, or Kaitlan Collins spinning the outgoing WarnerMedia C.E.O. around her finger with some rhetorical jujitsu. This open grieving spilled out into public view, and led to a steady drip of leaks about Zucker and Gollust’s alleged misdeeds that never provided any real evidence of a smoking gun, and thus no real sense of closure. The grieving led to more grieving, and Kilar was a more than willing emotional pinata.

The Ukraine crisis changed that. It’s always unbecoming to cite human tragedy as a boon for media organizations, but the Russian invasion gave CNN a new focus and purpose at a time when it needed both desperately. It also highlighted CNN’s unparalleled journalistic strength in times of crisis, as well as the relative weakness of competitors who don’t have the global correspondent armada or global production infrastructure to meet the moment in quite the same way. And, of course, the singular coverage has been delivering ratings the likes of which CNN hasn’t seen since the chaotic final days of the Trump administration.

In Thursday’s meeting, Zaslav pointed to the network’s Ukraine coverage as an example of what CNN does best—and what he wants CNN to be known for going forward. He talked about prioritizing the network’s investment in journalism and doubling down on global news and newsgathering, sources with knowledge of the meeting said. He also encouraged The Trio, which has been press averse for the last month, to take a victory lap over the Ukraine coverage and start speaking out publicly about the network’s success at this crucial moment in history. (Representatives for both Discovery and CNN declined comment.)

One other important detail to come out of the meeting: For months, there’s been industry speculation that Zaslav might try to delay the launch of CNN+. After all, given the non-interference period that precludes a merger, Zaslav and Discovery had been given no insight into the CNN+ business strategy, and the service is poised to add an additional $300 million per year to the CNN balance sheet, sources with knowledge of the finances told me—all at a time when Discovery needs to pay off about $30 billion in debt and has its own ideas about a broader streaming strategy. At the meeting, however, Zaslav gave CNN+ the green light to launch on schedule and told The Trio he was excited to see the product.

What does that mean for the long-term future of CNN+? It depends on how it performs. The service hopes to get 2 million subscribers in its first year and add about 3 million subs per year after that, sources with knowledge of the strategy told me. (Earlier this week, they announced a special offer that will let people subscribe for $2.99 a month, instead of the standard $5.99 a month, if they sign up early.) If CNN+ meets or exceeds those goals—a task that should become easier once the service goes global—Zaslav may decide to go ahead with the current plan as envisioned by Zucker and his deputy Andrew Morse. If not, he may turn CNN+ into a tab on the Warner Bros. Discovery streaming service, or rethink the news network’s streaming strategy entirely. Time will tell.

Either way, the Ukraine coverage and the launch of CNN+—there will be a kick-off party next week at SXSW, in Austin—gives CNN yet another opportunity to move past the Zucker-Kilar imbroglio and start looking toward the future. But that doesn’t mean CNN can’t be dragged back into the past, of course. Both Zucker and Gollust remain angered and bewildered by the circumstances of their ouster and are still considering whether or not to sue WarnerMedia, which left them with absolutely no severance or financial compensation for their nine years of service, sources with knowledge of their thinking say. 

Chris Cuomo, too, is still lurking in the background and possibly ready to create headaches, especially as his hopes for a financial settlement become more and more unlikely. Sources familiar with the former anchor’s thinking tell me that he will refuse any settlement with WarnerMedia that requires him to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but there’s no indication that a settlement is being offered. They also say he’s pondered the idea of suing Zucker personally, possibly for defamation, but there, too, it’s not clear on what grounds he would do so. And even if he did, that too would be WarnerMedia’s problem, as Zucker is indemnified by the company.