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Who runs CNN after Jeff Zucker? It's complicated

Even as CNN’s parent company AT&T tries to position itself for a new era, the list of people who are seen as capable of running a major television news organization is short.
Chairman, WarnerMedia New and Sports, President CNN Worldwide Jeff Zucker speaks onstage during CNN Experience on March 5, 2020 in New York.
Chairman, WarnerMedia New and Sports, President CNN Worldwide Jeff Zucker speaks onstage during CNN Experience on March 5, 2020 in New York.Mike Coppola / Getty Images for WarnerMedia file

Ben Sherwood has spent most of his career in the trenches of television news.

His rise from executive producer for ABC's "Good Morning America" to ABC News President and finally, up until a few years ago, president of Disney-ABC Television is a success story of the modern television news era, somewhat akin to that of his longtime friend Jeff Zucker's rise at NBCUniversal and then CNN. (NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC News.)

So when Zucker revealed this month that he would probably be stepping down as CNN president at the end of 2021, Sherwood's name started popping up in conversations among high-level media insiders. In phone calls and text messages with more than 20 television executives, senior producers and other media veterans from across the broadcast and cable landscape, Sherwood was frequently cited as the most-qualified candidate to take over CNN.

Sherwood’s focus, however, is elsewhere. This week, he and a new business partner are launching MOJO, a youth sports app that provides instructional videos, lesson guides and other tools to coaches and parents. Sherwood says the company has global ambitions, the backing of several big investors and athletes, and is "on a mission" to "bring the magic back to youth sports."

He also says he hasn't been asked about the CNN job and doesn’t expect to be. He’s not even entirely convinced Zucker will actually end up leaving CNN: “Jeff’s not going anywhere — and I’m not either,” he said.

Sherwood's repeated inclusion in discussions about CNN offers a window into some of the stark realities of the television news business — primarily that its leadership remains mostly in the old-school world of traditional broadcast and cable TV, which means it skews white and male and is not always fluent in new digital strategies.

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

Even as CNN’s parent company AT&T tries to position itself for a new era, the list of people who are capable of running a major television news organization like CNN, of overseeing major breaking news events and managing an industry of big egos, is short and mostly made up of the individuals who already have experience in similar jobs, according to the conversations with people in the media industry.

"Most people don't get visibility into how difficult these jobs are," one veteran broadcast and cable news insider said. "There are no obvious candidates waiting in the wings."

Sherwood also checks a box few others can, many said: He has decades of experience in television, from the producer to the executive level. He knows how to program, how to manage talent, how to draw ratings. And despite the digital disruption and cable’s increasingly fast decline, traditional television is still CNN’s core business. The financial analytics company S&P Global estimates that CNN’s profits in 2019 were around $700 million. Two sources at CNN said the company generated $1.1 billion of profit in 2020.

Figuring out the future of CNN presents a major challenge for AT&T chief executive John Stankey and Jason Kilar, the head of AT&T's WarnerMedia unit. How do you find someone who can run the TV operation CNN of today while positioning it for success as the digital, direct-to-consumer CNN of tomorrow?

“The cable business is shrinking,” said media analyst Rich Greenfield. “The long-term future of CNN is not going to be premised on primetime ratings.”

Stankey signaled his commitment to AT&T’s direct-to-consumer strategy when he tapped Kilar, the former chief executive of Hulu, to take over the company’s media unit. But shepherding a cable news network into this digital future while preserving the CNN brand will require a delicate balancing act, insiders said.

In order to strike a balance between conventional TV and digital, some of the insiders believe AT&T will split CNN leadership duties, tapping one person to oversee news coverage and programming and another to oversee the transition to direct-to-consumer. In such a scenario, someone like Amy Entelis, CNN’s executive vice president for talent and content development, or Virginia Moseley, the senior vice president of newsgathering, would take the news side while Andrew Morse, the executive vice president and chief digital officer, could oversee the business side.

Other possible news-side leaders mentioned included Chris Licht, an executive producer who has had successful runs overseeing MSNBC's "Morning Joe," "CBS This Morning" and now, CBS's "The Late Show." (NBC News and MSNBC are both owned by NBCUniversal.) Others said he was better positioned for the role of ABC News President, a position that will become vacant when the network's current chief, James Goldston, steps down at the end of March.

Alex Wallace, the head of media and content at Verizon, and a former senior vice president of NBC News, was also mentioned by some people. So too was David Rhodes, the former CBS News President who now serves as the head of Rupert Murdoch's News UK TV. A few mentioned Jim Bell, the veteran NBC News producer who oversaw the “Today” show, the “Tonight” show and NBC’s coverage of the Olympics.

None of these executives would necessarily represent a bold step forward in terms of the digital business or greater diversity in media. (Across the six major broadcast and cable news divisions, only one president is a person of color: Rashida Jones of MSNBC.)

There's another wrinkle: Some insiders (and more than a few Wall Street analysts) believe it is possible that AT&T may try to sell or spin off CNN in order to reduce its debt, which now stands at about $150 billion, according to its 2019 annual earnings report. If that is the case, Stankey and Kilar's calculation may be different.

"It depends on what you need," one television executive said. "A divisional manager or a spin-off CEO?"

Finally, there is the challenge of replacing Zucker himself: an outsize personality who works around the clock, is deeply involved in nearly every decision the company makes (including the programming) and commands fierce loyalty from his employees. When Zucker revealed his intention to leave at the end of 2021, many of the network's anchors issued statements saying that they would try to convince him to stay.

"I’ve been at cnn for 15 years. The best of those years have been with Jeff,” Don 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.”

Perhaps the most entertaining, if far-fetched, idea offered from anyone was this: that AT&T would sell CNN and that Zucker himself would buy it with the support of an investment group.