WarnerMedia’s Jeff Zucker shares his approach to news, sports in rapidly changing industry
It was 4 a.m. local time when Jeff Zucker woke up in Los Angeles last Wednesday, the first day of the open impeachment inquiry happening on the other side of the country in Washington, D.C.
Zucker, who is one of the most influential sports media voices since becoming chairman of WarnerMedia’s news and sports division and president of CNN Worldwide eight months ago, was in town in part to speak at the Endeavor Streaming Sports Media & Technology conference.
The first thing he did after waking up that morning was turn on CNN. He streamed the news channel on the drive from his hotel to the conference in Marina del Rey. Once he finished his on-stage interview a few hours later, around 10 a.m., he was back in his car focused on the CNN stream.
“The reality is the teams that are handling the coverage back in New York and Washington are actually happy that I’m not there because they’re only getting half the emails that I normally send them,” he said, joking.
In the eight months Zucker has overseen sports, the news cycle has been never-ending — from the impeachment proceeding to the upcoming election and everything in between. Last Wednesday, when he prepared for his first big address to the sports business by watching CNN, was a perfect illustration of his competing roles.
Zucker on OTT“Live programming, live news, live sports is not part of the first phase of HBO Max, which launches next May. But it is something that will be part of HBO Max down the road. I don’t know when yet, but it’ll be the second or third phase of HBO Max.”
Zucker guessed that he devotes about two-thirds of his time to news and one-third to sports.
“I had hoped that I would be able to pull back a little bit more from the CNN side and turn it more into 50/50,” Zucker said. “The way that the cycle was going and the way that news is going right now, I don’t envision that changing any time soon. I think it’ll stay about two-thirds/one-third.”
Zucker credited leadership at Turner Sports for giving him the luxury of not being involved in the sports division’s day-to-day production. Turner Sports President Lenny Daniels oversees sports strategy and day-to-day operations, and Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer Craig Barry oversees production.
“I’m more involved in strategy and negotiations,” Zucker said. “I grew up as a producer, and I grew up in sports … so Craig gets some emails from me during the broadcast. Thus far, they haven’t learned what the news guys learned a couple of years ago — just push back on me.”
When asked how he has put his stamp on the sports division, Zucker pointed to a couple of relatively minor changes, like hiring Dwyane Wade for its NBA programming or canceling the Tuesday night “Players Only” NBA telecasts. But he was more interested in talking about what hasn’t changed at Turner Sports.
“I inherited a division that wasn’t broken and didn’t need to be fixed,” he said. “Overall, I’d say that it’s been a status quo.”
Disciplined approach to rights
This is a job that fits Zucker well. He is passionate about news, sports and live television. He said WarnerMedia executives had an eye toward the future of television when they decided to combine news and sports under one executive.
“Live programming will drive the legacy Turner networks: CNN, TBS and TNT,” Zucker said. “That’s the future of much of legacy television for broadcast and cable networks. It’s live programming that’s going to differentiate them from all of the streaming services.”
That’s why Zucker is so bullish on sports and news programming. He believes live programming will continue to be critically important to linear television networks for at least the next decade.
“The future of the traditional legacy broadcast networks and large cable networks — that’s news and sports,” Zucker said. “That’s why it’s exciting that we’ve grouped what we’ve grouped together, and that’s why sports will continue to play such an important role. Without sports, I don’t think those networks would be what they are.”
To that end, Zucker said he has looked into switching the format for some Turner networks so that they can take better advantage of live news and sports.
“There’s complications with all of them, right,” he said. “None of that is easy. That’s a mitigating factor. But as you look over the next decade at all these legacy cable channels, you have to think about where they’re going to be in the next 10 years … HLN and truTV, both of which you mentioned, are networks that we have looked at with regard to possibly thinking about doing something else.”
Zucker on challenges facing sports leagues“Each of the sports has their own upsides and potential issues. They’re all dealing with each of those individually. In a macro sense, the thing I would guard against is putting too many packages in too niche places.”
Zucker’s team put in a bid to renew the UEFA Champions League rights that went to CBS earlier this month. The team has had what Zucker called “serious discussions” to poach PGA Tour rights from NBC Sports Group and CBS, a decision that is expected to come by the end of the year.
But whenever he discussed sports rights, Zucker spoke of the need to take a disciplined and strategic approach.
“We’re going to look at everything that comes along,” Zucker said. “We’re interested in remaining a big player in the sports world. … We’re going to be disciplined. We’re going to do the right thing for us.”
Because TV networks will continue to value sports rights, Zucker predicted their price tag would continue to increase. That will cause media companies to make hard choices about what sports they want to carry and which ones they want to give up.
“Maybe you don’t play in everything,” he said. “Organizations will make their own individual choices. You may not be able to afford everything, but you’ll need to be able to afford just enough to stay vital.”
As for Big Tech, Zucker remained skeptical that companies such as Amazon, Google and Netflix will be big players in the sports business any time soon.
“Do I think that one or two of the leagues might divvy up a package? It could happen, but I just don’t believe that’s going to change the fortunes of those tech companies. … I just don’t think that there’s going to be this mass migration or big move.”