Jeff Zucker spent last year in a box.
Heading into 2020, the CNN president was considered the top internal candidate to take over as chief executive of AT&T's WarnerMedia, according to several company insiders. It would be a major promotion to the top of one of the biggest media companies in the business, overseeing a portfolio that included Warner Bros., HBO and Turner, as well as the cable news channel he had stewarded.
Instead, in April of that year, AT&T handed the reins to Jason Kilar, a former Hulu CEO and Amazon alumnus eager to disrupt the legacy media business and go all-in on streaming.
Zucker, the one-time CEO of NBCUniversal and a legacy media veteran, found himself reporting to Kilar, a tech executive who had little experience with the preoccupations of cable news and legacy television (NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC News). Zucker chafed at AT&T's decision, which took away some of his control over personnel. He and Kilar merely tolerated one another, four sources with knowledge of their dynamic said.
Through the press and public statements, Zucker sent signals to AT&T CEO John Stankey that he might leave if Kilar tried too hard to flex his muscle.
"The industry is changing, our company is changing, so I have a lot to think about," he said in a town hall in October. Articles in The Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair depicted Zucker as a man with one foot out the door.
Then, during a staff call on Feb. 4, Zucker said it out loud: "I am going to stay at CNN through the end of this year. I am going to stay and finish my current contract, which ... will keep me here until the end of this year. At that point, I do expect to move on."
What Kilar didn't know then — and wouldn't know until a few days ago — is that the very same month that Zucker announced his intention to step down, an effort had begun that is almost certain to put Kilar out of his job and open the door for Zucker to keep control of CNN and more.
Zucker and Discovery CEO David Zaslav did not respond to requests for interviews; WarnerMedia declined a request to interview Kilar.
AT&T makes $43 billion deal to merge WarnerMedia with DiscoveryMay 17, 202101:16
On Feb. 13, Zaslav sent an email to Stankey inviting him to discuss a possible WarnerMedia-Discovery merger, two sources with knowledge of the matter confirmed. Zucker and Zaslav have been friends for decades, golf together often and own houses near each other in the Hamptons.
Nathaniel Brown, a spokesperson for Discovery, said Zucker was not made aware of the deal prior to the announcement, but two sources who know the two men said it was highly improbable that Zaslav wouldn’t have brought his close friend in on a plan that so directly affected him, and may have done so as early as February.
"Stuff happens in the Hamptons and on the golf course," said one veteran media executive who knows both men.
On Monday, Zaslav and Stankey announced that WarnerMedia would be spun off from AT&T and merge with Discovery, forming a new company that would be run by Zaslav.
Now, the talk at the highest levels of WarnerMedia and CNN is not so much over whether Zucker will stay or go, but rather what position he might have in Zaslav's new company: global chairman of news and sports? Chief content officer?
Meanwhile, Kilar is negotiating his exit from a company that, until this weekend, he believed he would be running for years. On Friday, just two days before news of the impending merger broke, The Wall Street Journal published a profile about Kilar that made no mention of what was to come. Two people with knowledge of the matter said AT&T gave him the green light to proceed with the profile, even as Stankey and Zaslav were hashing out the terms of a merger that would force his exit.
One high-ranking AT&T employee said, “This just goes to show you, never f--- with Jeff Zucker.”