Failure to disclose romantic relationship with staff member leads to his demise
In the sixteen years of writing this blog, there have been a number of media executives I’ve written about who came off as total assholes – Sam Zell, Randy Michaels, Jimmy deCastro, Michael Ferro, Jan Jeffries, Les Moonves, Marv Nyren, Larry Tisch, and probably more, enough to fill a phone book (if we still had those.). For one reason or another, whether if it’s sexual harassment, racism, or the general lack of people skills, these guys are symbols of what’s wrong with the media business.
And perhaps the person who topped them all of those ignoramuses is Jeff Zucker.
On Wednesday, Zucker stepped down from his post at CNN after he failed to disclose a romantic relationship he had with a senior executive at the cable news network – who turned out to be chief marketing officer Allison Gollust, who knew each other for twenty years, dating back to the days they worked together at NBCUniversal. In a memo, Zucker acknowledged he didn’t disclose the fact his relationship changed from a strictly platonic relationship to a romantic one during the pandemic as required by terms of his employment.
This comes as CNN parent Warner Media is being spun off from AT&T and is being merged with Discovery Communications later this year. AT&T shareholders will retain a 71 percent stake dividend in the newly formed company as announced on Tuesday. In the interim, WarnerMedia named three executives at the company as co-heads to fill his vacant position: Michael Bass, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz.
Zucker was instrumental in hiring former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s brother Chris and gave him a show on CNN and his show continued, even as the former’s sexual harassment claims were unraveling. An independent investigation revealed Chris Cuomo also was accused of sexual misconduct and was part of the governor’s team in handling the fallout.
Zucker was expected to exit CNN after WarnerMedia completed its deal with Discovery. Zucker was instrumental in developing CNN Plus, an upcoming streaming service whose idea has been mocked.
As a producer of Today, Zucker rose to prominence at NBC and took over running the entertainment side of the network. During his tenure, he was criticized for failing to fill the void left by Friends after its 2004 departure and relied on gimmicky shows to boost ratings, such as hiring Donald Trump to host The Apprentice, airing Deal Or No Deal ad nauseum (repeating the same mistake ABC did with Who Wants To Be A Millionaire a few years earlier), mishandling Heroes, and rebooting junk like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here Bionic Woman, and American Gladiators, leaving the network NBC in fourth place for years – even rivaling the period between 1975 and 1984 as the worst era in the history of the network.
One former NBC exec ripped Zucker’s tenure at the network in 2008 calling it the “Deal Or No Deal, Law And Order network.” In 2009, T Dog Media called for the resignations of Zucker and fellow exec Ben Silverman for their inept way of running the network as NBC initials jokingly stood for “Nothing But Crap”. The same piece even suggested Gary Coleman could replace Jeff Zucker as head of NBC since he basically kept the network’s lights on during its early-1980s swoon.
After Jay Leno decided to exit the Tonight Show in 2009 and hand the reigns to Conan O’Brien, Leno had second thoughts and Zucker made the unprecedented move to give Leno a weeknight prime-time slot at 10 p.m. ET (9 p.m. Central) in a disastrous move, drawing the wrath of Hollywood producers and later, local NBC station executives as his show was hurting their news lead-ins (in Chicago, NBC-owned WMAQ’s 10 p.m. newscast earned a rare third-place finish in the November 2009 sweeps period.) In January 2010, Zucker was instrumental in ousting Conan O’Brien after just seven months as host of The Tonight Show and gave Leno his job back in what turned out to be a public relations disaster.
Zucker left the network later that year and joined Disney/ABC in 2011 as executive producer for Katie Couric’s daytime syndicated talk show, a reunion between the two since they worked together during their days at Today. But four months after the show launched in 2012, he bolted to run CNN.
The cable news channel founded by Ted Turner in 1980 was transformed into one driven by personalities and tabloid stories, such as the disappearance of a Malaysian plane and featured eight hours of former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel in the heavily panned and ultra low-rated docuseries Chicagoland. In 2016, the network started covering rallies featuring then-candidate Trump when he was running for President and became his foil when he served in the White House, often calling CNN “fake news” while Zucker did nothing to defend the network or his journalists from his attacks. CNN’s weekend prime-time lineup often featured pop culture documentaries such as History Of The Sitcom, which does not belong on a hard news network and when they aired actual news documentaries, they were lackluster at best.
It’s probably a stretch to say Jeff Zucker is the worst media executive of all time when so many others I mentioned above were just as bad or even worse. But his contributions to the medium of television really shouldn’t be celebrated. But as par for the course, he’ll find work again because you don’t need a high IQ or anything short of a GED to run a media corporation.