On January 25 Jeff Zucker and Allison Gollust arrived together at CNN’s New York office for a very important meeting. On the agenda: An hours-long presentation of the new CNN+ streaming service for Zucker’s boss, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar.
The discussions and hands-on demonstrations were a success. Kilar flew back home. There were no outward signs of the C-suite meltdown that was about to take place.
Little more than a week later, Zucker is gone. CNN staffers, including Zucker’s longtime senior leadership team, are in shock. The stated reason why things went so bad so quickly is that Zucker violated company policy by failing to disclose a romantic relationship with his de facto chief of staff Allison Gollust until revealing it to lawyers during an internal investigation into the scandal surrounding former anchor Chris Cuomo.
In the meantime, CNN’s top corporate priority beyond cleaning up the mess is the same as it was last week: Launching CNN+, one of the most ambitious ventures in the company’s history.
Top of mind within the halls of CNN is the leadership vacuum that Zucker’s resignation created. Kilar named three interim joint heads of CNN on Wednesday: Michael Bass, Amy Entelis and Ken Jautz.
Kilar signaled that they will lead the news organization “through the close of the pending transaction with Discovery.”
That’s the big X factor in both the decision and what comes next, according to sources on every side of the situation: AT&T’s impending spin-off of WarnerMedia, which sets the stage for CNN and the rest of WarnerMedia to be merged with Discovery (DENR) to create a streaming era juggernaut.
One prevailing theory among media executives is that AT&T’s determination to complete the deal disadvantaged Zucker.
“John Stankey cares about one thing and one thing only: Getting the deal done,” a senior executive said.
From that perspective, Zucker’s dealings with Chris Cuomo may have been a real problem.
When Zucker fired Cuomo in December, and Cuomo challenged the decision to deny him severance, questions emerged about Zucker’s relationship with Gollust.
“As part of the investigation into Chris Cuomo’s tenure at CNN, I was asked about a consensual relationship with my closest colleague,” Zucker said in his resignation announcement.
That’s how his earlier failure to disclose the relationship became evident.
The Cuomo probe also raised questions about Zucker and Gollust’s dealings with Cuomo’s brother Andrew, the former governor of New York. A WarnerMedia spokesperson declined to comment on whether that was a factor in Zucker’s exit.
Discovery must legally remain at arm’s length from WarnerMedia until the looming deal receives government approval.
According to a source with knowledge of the matter, Discovery CEO David Zaslav learned of his longtime friend Zucker’s resignation only hours before it happened.
CNBC, which first reported the timeline, observed that “Zucker’s departure could give Zaslav more freedom to decide how to proceed with CNN’s live programming and CNN+ without having to butt heads with a friend.”
Discovery executives view Zucker’s departure as a “fresh start” for CNN, two people with knowledge of the matter told CNN Business.
It is also a moment of rebirth insofar as CNN+ begins a new streaming strategy for the company. The subscription service, due to launch in the early spring, will feature a collection of live, on-demand and interactive programming.
The formation of Warner Bros. Discovery is also expected in the spring, with multiple sources predicting that the deal will take effect in April or May.
Discovery is likely to appoint a new leader of CNN Worldwide at that time, the two people with knowledge of the matter said.
Until then, the network will be overseen by Kilar and the trifecta of executives he elevated on Wednesday.
The three interim heads have been holding meetings and calls with some staff members, and have been candid about the many unknowns that exist at the moment, sources said.
Bass led CNN’s morning editorial meeting on Thursday morning. Zucker had for years helmed the call, which features dozens of staffers and executives sharing plans for the day and discussing themes in the news. Hundreds of employees tune in for the call every weekday.
Bass had filled in for Zucker on the call earlier in the week too, before anyone knew why.
On Thursday Bass started the call by saying “I know we’re all in shock.”
“You can’t replace Jeff. It’s not possible. There’s no one else like him,” Bass said. So “the best thing we can do is honor his legacy and continue his mission.”
During his introductory remarks, Bass said Zucker had been described as the “captain of the ship” of CNN. Bass ended the call nearly an hour later on a reassuring note: “The ship is still sailing.”