Inside CNN, where staffers are mostly relieved its parent company is merging with Discovery and are now speculating about Jeff Zucker's future there

  • CNN staffers aren’t looking forward to the logistics but are optimistic about the Discovery deal.
  • “It’s the best possible outcome that CNN could have,” one former executive said.
  • Insiders are wondering whether the network chief Jeff Zucker will stay past the end of the year.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

AT&T’s deal to combine WarnerMedia with Discovery to make a new entity has sparked a mix of stress and excitement at CNN, one of the forthcoming media giant’s highest-profile assets, according to conversations with seven current employees and people with ties to the company.

What CNN staffers are not looking forward to: the frustrating logistics of changing hands so soon after AT&T’s 2018 acquisition of what was then known as Time Warner, and the uncertainty about whether $3 billion in expected “cost synergies” means anything for them.

What they are looking forward to: being part of a pure-play media company aimed at taking on Netflix and Disney in the streaming wars, and the possibility that the network chief Jeff Zucker — who had said he would step down at the end of the year — might stick around.

In a video press conference on Monday, Discovery CEO David Zaslav emphasized that the new company, which he will lead, intended to keep CNN and spend on its direct-to-consumer products.

“The new CEO is saying this will give more money and investment into creating content, which is always exciting,” one CNN reporter said. “I just wonder if we’ll still keep our AT&T phone benefits. They are very generous.”

Phone plans aside, staffers at CNN had been on edge for months as speculation swirled on Wall Street that the news network was a natural spinoff or acquisition target for AT&T to pay down its debt and focus on entertainment-streaming products at WarnerMedia, which encompasses HBO and the Warner Bros. film studio.

“It’s the best possible outcome that CNN could have,” one former CNN executive said. “It was a huge headache for AT&T, but it’s a tonic for Discovery.”

A CNN spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

Still, some at CNN were anxious on Monday given Zaslav’s comments earlier this year to The New York Times when asked if he had approached Zucker, a friend and golfing buddy, about buying CNN. Zaslav said at the time that he hadn’t, adding, “News is very overplayed and excoriated here in the US.”

On the conference call, Zaslav sought to emphasize his news chops, recalling when Jack Welch hired him in the late 1980s to launch what became the CNBC network. He later worked with Microsoft to create MSNBC, he said. Following its 2018 acquisition of Scripps Networks Interactive, Discovery owns the Polish media company TVN Group and has backed GB News, a forthcoming right-of-center news channel in the UK.

“It’s great for CNN and the rest of those networks to be in a pure-play media company rather than at a telco,” said Jonathan Klein, the president of CNN from 2004 to 2010. “David Zaslav is a world-class operator who offers a skill set that AT&T could not match, and he also has a global outlook that matches CNN’s.” (Discovery is an investor in Klein’s streaming company, Tapp.)

Klein said that if the new venture didn’t spin off CNN, Zaslav’s focus on the streaming business might push the news network to increase its output of streaming-friendly entertainment programming along the lines of its recent hit “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy.”

For now, some CNN employees say they are not looking forward to another logistical change after migrating to new HR systems, benefits, and email addresses following AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner for $85 billion in 2018.

Feelings about the deal among CNN staffers will also hinge on whether Zucker, who has inspired loyalty among many at the company, will stay on.

In an interview on CNN’s own airwaves on Monday, Zaslav said he hoped that Zucker would stay.

“If Jeff says he is staying, it will restore a lot of calm,” one staffer said.

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