Jeff Zucker, former chief executive officer of NBC Universal, is close to taking the top job at Time Warner Inc. (TWC)’s Cable News Network, three people with knowledge of the situation said.
Zucker, 47, will succeed CNN President Jim Walton, who said in July he would depart at the end of the year. An agreement with Zucker is imminent, according to one of the people, who requested anonymity because the talks are private.
Zucker made his mark in the news business as a wunderkind producer of NBC’s “Today Show” in the 1990s. After rising through the ranks of NBC, he struggled to develop hit prime-time programs and was replaced as CEO when Comcast Corp. took over the business in 2011. Time Warner, meanwhile, is counting on new management to reverse a ratings slump at the network. CNN, once the cable-news leader, now has a third as many viewers as News Corp. (NWSA)’s Fox News.
Jeff Bewkes, CEO of New York-based Time Warner, and Philip Kent, chairman of the Turner Broadcasting division, are looking to complete a deal with Zucker by the end of this week, according to two of the people. Keith Cocozza, a spokesman for New York-based Time Warner, declined to comment.
Bewkes, speaking today at Business Insider’s media and technology conference in New York, declined to discuss the matter, beyond saying, “We’ll have an announcement soon.”
Since 2011, Zucker has been executive producer of “Katie,” the daytime talk show of Katie Couric, the former anchor of “CBS Evening News” and “Today Show.”
Before that, Zucker spent his entire working career at NBC. He started as a researcher in 1986 for the 1988 Seoul Olympics and went on to become executive producer of the “Today” show at age 26. By 2007, he ascended to the top job at NBC Universal, overseeing the broadcast network, the Universal Pictures film studio, theme parks and cable channels.
Zucker’s tenure was marred by falling ratings at NBC, which failed to develop new shows as successful as its older hits like “Friends.” His decision in 2009 to put comedian Jay Leno in prime time backfired by cutting the 11 p.m. audience for local news and sparking protests from NBC’s affiliate TV stations.
The CNN job would give Zucker a chance to prove himself again. Even so, his high-profile career in television potentially makes him overqualified to run the network, said Todd Juenger, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York. CNN currently gets lower ratings than MSNBC, which once was a small part of the conglomerate that Zucker oversaw.
“How does a guy who used to call all the shots across the mighty empire of NBCU be satisfied running a network that is struggling to compete with MSNBC, which was hardly big enough to matter in his old role?” Juenger said.
Zucker also may not like working two management levels below the CEO, Juenger said.
“Can Zucker really be happy, for how long, presumably reporting to Phil Kent who reports to Jeff Bewkes?” he said. “And who makes the most money? It will be great fun to watch.”
Zucker would replace Walton, 54, who started at CNN one year after it was founded by billionaire Ted Turner and helped build the nascent network into a dominant news organization. CNN soon became a staple in many households and was the only news outlet to broadcast live video feed of the first Gulf War from inside Iraq.
In recent years, the network struggled to find a formula that could compete with the more partisan commentary on Fox News and MSNBC. In announcing his resignation, Walton said the cable news network “needs new thinking.”
“That starts with a new leader who brings a different perspective, different experiences and a new plan, one who will build on our great foundation and will commit to seeing it through,” Walton said.
CNN is still a profitable business and stands to make more than $600 million this year, Bewkes told shareholders at the company’s annual meeting.