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Sep. 24, 2019, 2:39 PM UTC

Jeff Zucker seen as top internal candidate for WarnerMedia CEO

AT&T’s executive succession plan remains in some doubt after Elliott Management, the activist hedge fund, argued that the company’s leadership made numerous missteps.
Image: CNN President Jeff Zucker in the network control room in Washington on July 22, 2019.
CNN President Jeff Zucker in the network control room in Washington on July 22, 2019.Bill O'Leary / The Washington Post / Getty Images file

Jeff Zucker’s meteoric rise in the media industry may not be over yet.

Zucker, the president of CNN, is now the leading — if not the only — internal candidate being considered to become chief executive of WarnerMedia, the new conglomeration owned by AT&T that includes Warner Bros., HBO and Turner Broadcasting, according to five high-level WarnerMedia sources. He is currently the head of news and sports for WarnerMedia.

AT&T, which is trying to fend off an activist investor and figure out its executive succession plan, could still tap someone from outside the company. But the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said Zucker has emerged as the one internal name to take the WarnerMedia CEO job if its current chief, John Stankey, becomes CEO of AT&T.

Selecting Zucker to lead WarnerMedia would present significant risks for AT&T, both because he had a troubled tenure at NBCUniversal and because of his relationship with President Donald Trump, all five sources said. Still, in an industry where experienced and decisive leaders are hard to come by, Zucker could be a powerful force to lead WarnerMedia in a fiercely competitive Hollywood landscape.

NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC News.

Both Zucker and a WarnerMedia spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

AT&T’s executive succession plan remains in some doubt. Elliott Management, the activist hedge fund that owns about $3 billion worth of AT&T stock, has argued that the company’s leadership has made numerous missteps, including the $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner (since renamed WarnerMedia) that brought Zucker and the rest of the media giant under AT&T.

Zucker’s rise and fall — and rise again — is media industry lore. He took over as executive producer of the “Today” show, the NBC News morning program, at the age of 26 and helped lead the show to ratings success over its network rivals. In 2005, he was named chief executive of the NBCUniversal Television Group, which was then owned by General Electric.

But under Zucker’s leadership, NBC went from a leader in TV ratings to last place among its network competitors. In 2010, Zucker stepped down from his role atop NBC after NBCUniversal was acquired by Comcast.

The reviews of his tenure at the time were not particularly favorable. In one memorable column, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times asked, “How does Jeff Zucker keep rising and rising while the fortunes of NBC keep falling and falling?”

The missteps at NBC, however, did not banish him from the media industry. In 2012, CNN named Zucker its president. While CNN remains behind cable news rivals Fox News and MSNBC in its TV ratings, its online presence has cemented its place as one of the leading news brands in the U.S. Zucker has also helped CNN double its profits.

After the AT&T acquisition, Zucker was named head of news and sports for WarnerMedia. He is also one of the few remaining heads of a major WarnerMedia group after former Warner Bros. chief Kevin Tsujihara and former HBO chief Richard Plepler both left the company.

Several of the WarnerMedia sources said both Tsujihara and Plepler would have been under consideration for the role, and may even have been in a better position than Zucker, were they still with the company. Tsujihara resigned earlier this year amid allegations of misconduct. Plepler left around the same time due in part to frustrations with Stankey and the AT&T leadership, the sources said.

Zucker does face some headwinds. His NBCUniversal track record remains part of his résumé, and he also has no clear successor at CNN. He’s also spent most of his career on the content and programming side, while AT&T is stressing a broader strategy that includes data-targeted advertising.

He also presents political risks for AT&T. Trump has called for him to be fired and repeatedly describes CNN as “fake news.” One question insiders have asked: Why make AT&T a bigger target for the administration, especially after all the work it took to overcome its opposition to the Time Warner acquisition?

At the same time, Zucker is known throughout the industry for his drive and is considered a fearless, hard-charging programmer who works around the clock, makes decisions quickly and almost never second-guesses himself.

In a highly competitive industry, where AT&T will be going toe-to-toe with Hollywood giants and Silicon Valley behemoths, the company may decide that Zucker is worth the risk, the sources said.