How a Megadeal Reunited CNN’s Jeff Zucker With a Powerful Old Friend

Phone buddies and golf partners, Jeff Zucker and David Zaslav have a 30-year history. Now Zucker may be open to working for the man he calls a “best friend.”,

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Last summer, the future looked hazy for Jeff Zucker, the pugnacious president of CNN.

His network was run by AT&T, a telecom company awkwardly experimenting in television. He was clashing with a new boss, Jason Kilar, who knew more about streaming video analytics than journalism. Donald J. Trump — whose supporters chanted “CNN sucks” — was vying for a second term as president. At 55, Mr. Zucker told friends it might be time for him to move on.

One year later, AT&T is retreating from the media business, Mr. Kilar is negotiating his exit, and Mr. Trump is gone. And Mr. Zucker may now have the chance to work for one of his closest pals in business and in life, a golf buddy and confidant who the CNN president once said was “the best friend that anyone could ever want, and I’m lucky that he’s mine.”

Mr. Zucker’s partner in this bromance is David Zaslav, 61, the chief executive of Discovery Inc., which on Monday announced it would merge with CNN and other AT&T-owned media properties. The development has re-energized Mr. Zucker’s long-term prospects at the cable company and prompted sighs of relief in the upper ranks of CNN’s newsroom.

If the deal closes, Mr. Zaslav would oversee Mr. Zucker’s portfolio of CNN and Turner sports programming for the foreseeable future; he signed a contract with Discovery on Tuesday that would keep him with the company until 2027. That has changed the calculus for Mr. Zucker, who had previously said he expected to leave CNN at the end of 2021 but now, according to friends, may be open to a longer stay.

Mr. Zucker declined to comment, but Mr. Zaslav, in a telephone interview, did not dismiss the idea. “He’s a hugely talented guy, and we’ll see what he wants to do,” he said.

In a staff memo on Monday, Mr. Zucker made no mention of his 30 years of friendship with Mr. Zaslav: their early years at NBC together, regular kibitz sessions on the phone, or weekend golf games in the Hamptons where their sprawling estates sit a 10-minute drive apart. (Mr. Zucker is inland; Mr. Zaslav has the oceanfront view.) Nor did he point out that Mr. Zaslav’s daughter is a producer in CNN’s Washington bureau.

But his excitement was obvious. “This is big and exciting news for our company,” Mr. Zucker wrote. “And, I think it’s fair to say, really good news for us.”

ImageMr. Zucker in the CNN control trailer during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Mr. Zucker in the CNN control trailer during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.Credit…Melissa Golden/Redux

People who have spoken with the CNN president in recent days report his mood on the telephone as buoyant. His confidants, who requested anonymity to describe private conversations, said that Mr. Zucker had learned of the impending merger only shortly before the public announcement, and that he was still determining his options.

All agreed that Mr. Zaslav’s takeover raised the odds that Mr. Zucker would stay put, perhaps in an expanded role that encompasses more of Discovery and Warner’s combined news and sports assets. Discovery, for instance, owns Eurosport, a European network with broadcast rights to the Olympics and major tournaments in tennis and golf.

“They were a formidable team when they were together at NBC,” said Jeff Gaspin, a former chairman of entertainment at NBCUniversal who has worked closely with both men. “They’ll make a formidable team at Warner if Jeff chooses to stay.”

The two men started at NBC in the late 1980s. They trained under Jack Welch, the chairman of General Electric, which controlled the media company, and ascended during NBC’s “Must See TV” golden age in the 1990s.

“It was a time that we would look at each other, and we believed that anything was possible,” Mr. Zaslav once said, reflecting on their salad days at NBC. Mr. Zucker eventually became chief executive; Mr. Zaslav left to run Discovery in 2007.

Prickly and blunt, Mr. Zucker is not known for befriending other executives who could become rivals down the road. But he has said he and Mr. Zaslav grew closer after they left NBC. Only a handful of guests were invited to Mr. Zucker’s intimate 50th birthday party in 2015 at a hotel in Lower Manhattan; Mr. Zaslav and his wife, Pam, made the cut.

In 2019, when Mr. Zaslav presented a career achievement award to Mr. Zucker at a starry luncheon in Midtown Manhattan, he called the CNN president “one of the greatest media leaders of all time.”

Inside CNN, the reaction to this week’s merger announcement has been happiness and relief. Mr. Zucker’s loyalists were uneasy about the prospect of his departure, and rumors flew that AT&T, facing a giant debt burden, would consider selling the highly profitable news network, perhaps leaving it in the hands of an owner less than committed to its journalistic mission.

Mr. Zaslav, a native New Yorker who helped create CNBC and MSNBC, is viewed as a safer steward. On Monday, he praised CNN’s journalism as “exceptional” and vowed to invest in the network’s digital future. “We’re going to come in and we’re going to be supportive,” Mr. Zaslav said.

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If the deal closes, Mr. Zaslav would oversee CNN and Turner sports programming for the foreseeable future.Credit…Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Mr. Zucker could still choose to leave for a new endeavor. His contract runs through the end of the year, and Mr. Zaslav might need to find a significant role in the new company to secure his commitment.

In the interview on Monday, Mr. Zaslav said he spoke to Mr. Zucker shortly after the deal was announced early that morning.

“We had a couple of good laughs,” Mr. Zaslav recalled. “I worked with Jeff, I worked for Jeff. And we’ve talked a lot about what I want to do with my life, and he’s talked to me a lot about what he wants to do with his life. So we’ll see.”

CNN is just one element of the combined company that Mr. Zaslav hopes to be steering as soon as the middle of next year. He is expected to go to Los Angeles in the next few weeks to tour the Warner Bros. lot and meet with Hollywood executives.

Mr. Zaslav recently purchased the Beverly Hills mansion of the late Hollywood super-producer Robert Evans. His taste for high-end real estate offers another link to Mr. Zucker.

At NBC, Mr. Zucker engineered a changeover at “The Tonight Show” in which Conan O’Brien moved from New York to Los Angeles to succeed Jay Leno. It did not work out so well, and Mr. O’Brien eventually quit.

But Mr. O’Brien’s West Coast move helped prompt him to sell his Manhattan apartment on Central Park West. The buyer, for $25 million, was Mr. Zaslav.

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