Jeff Zucker, CNN’s Longtime Leader, Says He Expects to Leave at Year’s End

Jeffrey A. Zucker, the relentless, ratings-obsessed executive who transformed American television news and played a central role in the political rise of Donald J. Trump, said Thursday that he expected to step down from his job running CNN at the end of the year.

In a three-decade career, Mr. Zucker has helped shape the evolution of the news and entertainment industries — and he has excelled at mixing the two. In 1991, at age 26, he was named the executive producer of NBC’s highly profitable morning franchise, the “Today” show, and he moved swiftly into the executive ranks to lead the network’s entertainment division.

He put his mark on some of the most extreme and absurd productions in the early years of reality television, programs like “Fear Factor,” in which contestants jumped off buildings, ate bugs and navigated a pit of rodents.

He also gave the green light to a show called “The Apprentice,” imagined as a version of “Survivor” in the urban jungle and starring a brassy real estate developer named Donald J. Trump. The opening-credits sequence burnished the Trump myth, presenting the show’s star in moody, slow-motion shots to the beat of “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays.

Mr. Zucker’s rise continued, taking him to the chief executive slot at NBCUniversal. In 2010, as Mr. Trump’s show was waning, Mr. Zucker oversaw a debacle: the replacement of Jay Leno, the top-rated host of “The Tonight Show,” with Conan O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien did not last a year in the job, and the network ended up giving its late-night franchise back to Mr. Leno. The blunder contributed to Mr. Zucker’s losing his job at the only network he had ever known.

Mr. Zucker, 55, took over CNN in 2013. He revived its ratings by turning single stories — large or small — into national and international dramas. Founded as the first 24-hour news channel in 1980 by the entrepreneur Ted Turner, the Cable News Network had always thrived in moments of crisis, whether the 9/11 attacks or the Arab Spring, when people around the world tuned in to watch news break.

Mr. Zucker emphasized CNN’s ability to create its own riveting narratives. The network had rolling coverage in February 2013 of a digestively troubled cruise liner known as the “poop ship,” and in 2014 became equally focused on the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

When Mr. Trump entered the political landscape in 2015, CNN followed the ratings, training its cameras on the celebrity turned politician who sold himself as the tough businessman from “The Apprentice” and had gained traction by spreading false theories about President Barack Obama’s birthplace. The network often ignored his Republican opponents while allowing him to become a frequent call-in guest to its programs and showing the empty stages where he planned to speak before showing live coverage of his long-winded rally monologues.

“DONALD TRUMP EXPECTED TO SPEAK ANY MINUTE,” one chyron read.

After Mr. Trump won the presidency and his attacks on CNN and other news media organizations escalated, Mr. Zucker started to put some distance between himself and the figure he had helped create.

“The Trump thing got out of control, and then he deliberately chose to make it an anti-Trump network,” said Jeffrey Lord, a former CNN contributor and Trump supporter.

The break seemed to arrive fully in the summer of 2017 when the network fired Mr. Lord. Like many of its competitors, CNN would no longer avoid taking sides in the Trump story.

The network seemed to make a U-turn, becoming a platform for the so-called resistance to Mr. Trump. CNN anchors like Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo made the network competitive in prime time for the first time in years with impassioned monologues denouncing the president’s actions, statements that not much earlier would have seemed more at home on the network’s liberal rival, MSNBC. Mr. Zucker later said the early, unfiltered coverage of Mr. Trump had been a “mistake.”

CNN’s identity — its blunt hostility to the president and its enduring strength in covering breaking news — converged in the chaos around Mr. Trump’s departure, when the former president and his allies tried to subvert the outcome of the election. Mr. Zucker was said by friends to have been in high spirits in recent weeks, pleased by the coverage of the election’s tense aftermath and the record ratings that went with it. The surge in viewership also meant he was able to announce his planned departure on a high note.

“I cannot imagine not being here right now,” Mr. Zucker told CNN employees on a call Thursday morning, explaining that he would not leave the network until his contract was up at the end of the year.

Looming in the background of his decision, and CNN’s future, is the 2018 acquisition of its parent company, Time Warner, by AT&T — a deal that the Justice Department under Mr. Trump tried to block — and the question of what a low-drama phone company wants to do with a high-octane news network at a moment of a deep national divide.

Mr. Zucker, a practiced boardroom fighter, had told associates of his doubts concerning Jason Kilar, the recently installed chief executive of AT&T’s news and entertainment division, WarnerMedia.

Mr. Kilar, a tech evangelist who built his reputation at the pioneering streaming platform Hulu, has focused on the fledgling streaming service HBOMax since taking over WarnerMedia last year. He became a divisive figure in Hollywood in December when he announced that Warner Bros. would release its 17 films scheduled for 2021 simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. Mr. Kilar also rankled Mr. Zucker last year when he stripped the CNN president of several corporate functions, including his oversight of the network’s human resources and publicity departments.

“It’s great to have Jeff steering all things CNN in 2021,” Mr. Kilar said in a statement. “The impact that Jeff has had on CNN is remarkable under any definition. And I believe that 2021 is going to go down as a milestone year in CNN’s 40-year history, given all that is planned. As I’ve said before, in my opinion, the two best things to happen to CNN have been Ted Turner and Jeff Zucker.”

Under Mr. Zucker, CNN has surged in profitability to over $1 billion annually in the last few years. But the business challenges facing CNN and AT&T are daunting. Americans are continuing to show they no longer want to pay for cable, whose rich affiliate fees power CNN’s earnings. But the streaming services, widely viewed as the future of news and entertainment, are still unprofitable. And unlike competitors like Disney+ and Netflix, WarnerMedia’s streaming service HBO Max is struggling to gain traction. CNN has lapped other cable news companies in internet traffic, but a CNN-branded streaming service is still in development.

Mr. Zucker has been omnipresent at CNN, dominating the network’s morning news meeting and setting its daily agenda. Rough around the edges early in his career, he has since engendered deep loyalty from the anchors, reporters and producers whose careers he has shaped.

“He’s the best boss I ever had, and it’s not even close,” said the CNN anchor Jake Tapper. “I’m grateful that we get him for another year.”

Mr. Lemon, who joined the network in 2006, said: “I’ve been at CNN a long time. The best of that time has been with Jeff.”

Mr. Zucker is known to watch the channel at all hours, and the hosts grew accustomed to hearing his voice in their ears during live programming and afterward.

“I remember very early on, during a particularly grueling assignment, my phone rang after a live shot,” Mr. Lemon said, “and the voice on the other end said: ‘You’re doing great. I know this is tough. I’m just calling to check on you.’ I answered, ‘Who is this?’ He said, ‘It’s Jeff.’ I said, ‘Jeff who?’ He said, ‘This is Jeff Zucker, the only Jeff that matters,’ and then he laughed.”

Few people who have worked closely with Mr. Zucker, who has endured two bouts of cancer, open-heart surgery and a painful episode of Bell’s palsy, expect him to retire to a quiet life of golf and tennis.

The long timeline for his departure also guarantees that speculation will continue to swirl around other possibilities: that he could lead a buyout of CNN from AT&T, or that he could replace Mr. Kilar at the helm of WarnerMedia.

“The story ain’t over till Jeff says it’s over,” said Ben Sherwood, a former head of Disney’s ABC Television Group and a longtime friend of Mr. Zucker’s. “A year is a very long time. More than a thousand news cycles, if not more. I would stay tuned.”

Mr. Lemon seconded that take, saying: “I’m happy to get him for another year, which I will spend trying to convince him to stay longer. Stay tuned.”

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