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CNN President Jeff Zucker says he could leave at end of 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," Zucker said on a call with employees.
Image: Jeff Zucker
Jeff Zucker attends CNN Heroes at American Museum of Natural History on Dec. 8, 2019 in New York City.Mike Coppola / Getty Images file

CNN President Jeff Zucker said he expects to leave the network when his contract expires at the end of this year, he told employees Thursday.

The news, which follows months of speculation that Zucker would leave as early as last month, gives CNN at least a year to find a successor to the man who radically transformed the network and its role in American journalism.

"I am going to stay at CNN through the end of this year," Zucker said on a call with staff, according to two people who participated. "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."

"Some of you will hear what I'm saying as an announcement that I am leaving," he added. "That is truly not the way I see it."

Under Zucker, CNN became known for wall-to-wall saturation coverage on one big story, whether it was politics or the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 or the infamous "poop cruise." That was a departure from the days when CNN sought to cover all the major news headlines from across the world in a digest more akin to the BBC.

The biggest story of Zucker's tenure would be President Donald Trump: a man who before his presidential campaign owed his national celebrity in part to Zucker himself. As president of NBC Entertainment in the early aughts, Zucker had signed Trump to host "The Apprentice." NBC Entertainment is owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.

Trump's candidacy and presidency were the central focus of Zucker's CNN, and the network's tone shifted over time from an obsession with the spectacle -- hours spent hyping Trump's speeches before they had even started -- to an adversarial, anti-Trump posture that only became more aggressive over the course of Trump's presidency, and more inseparable from the network's brand.

With Zucker now likely to depart at the end of 2021, CNN's corporate parent, AT&T, must set about deciding what kind of network it wants to be following his departure. Does it want to maintain the relentless focus on political drama or pivot back to a more traditional approach?

Perhaps the greater challenge will be finding a leader who is equally obsessed with running cable news programming, equally relentless in his pursuit of ratings, and who commands such fierce loyalty among his staff.

In conversations with several CNN employees in recent weeks about who might replace Zucker, the most common refrain was this: “No one can.”

Don Lemon, the CNN prime time anchor, said he will try to convince Zucker to stay.

“I’ve been at cnn for 15 years. The best of those years have been with Jeff,” Lemon said in a text message. “He’s staying for another year. I’ll take it. But know this, I will spend the next year trying to convince him to stay longer. Wish me luck and stay tuned.”

Dana Bash, CNN's chief political correspondent, said she was happy to hear he was staying at least another year.

“I’m a 27-year CNN veteran. I have very good perspective on what Jeff means to CNN - how his leadership makes us all want to do and be better,” Dana said. “The fact that he is staying another year is music to my ears.”