Jeff Zucker stepping down from CNN at end of 2021

When Jeff Zucker, shown last fall, started as the president of CNN a few years ago, he was worried about the network’s ratings and its relevancy. Now, CNN’s ratings are great, but recent missteps have left it open to criticism. DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM
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When Jeff Zucker, shown last fall, started as the president of CNN a few years ago, he was worried about the network’s ratings and its relevancy. Now, CNN’s ratings are great, but recent missteps have left it open to criticism. DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM

Jeff Zucker has decided to leave CNN as president after his contract is up at the end of this year.

That would mark nine years at the network, which ostensibly still has headquarters in Atlanta but whose power base is now firmly in New York City.

Zucker, who previously ran NBC entertainment operations, made his pending departure announcement to staff Thursday morning on the heels of CNN’s best ratings ever as the network. Since 2015, CNN was laser-focused on Donald Trump and reaped the financial benefits, generating hundreds of millions in profits over the years.

“Jeff brought a showman’s touch,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN correspondent who is director of strategic initiatives for The George Washington University. “He engendered intense loyalty and fondness. He stabilized the management structure that had been turbulent the previous several years.”

Tom Johnson, CNN’s Atlanta-based president from 1990 to 2001, considered Zucker the best president in the cable network’s 40-year history, lauding his passion for news, a strong competitive spirit, an eye for talent and a tremendous motivator.

Sesno said Zucker gave CNN a consistent voice, “a clearinghouse for ideas and analysis, and yes, opinion, while still trying very hard to retain its roots in news. They thread the incredibly challenging needle of today’s pressures and politics and media and audience during a very divisive time.”

The network under Zucker’s watch also diversified its reporting ranks and broadened its base of documentaries and original shows.

Zucker also greatly expanded CNN’s digital footprint, reaching tens of millions more people worldwide through cnn.com than the actual cable network itself.

But the primary network faces new challenges under a Joe Biden presidency and the continued growth of on-demand streaming and cord-cutting.

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