Jeff Zucker Has Endured Cancer, Hollywood, and Being TV’s Wunderkind. So Why Not Take on CNN?

Photo: Dina Litovsky

The headache started in the morning. It was a Thursday last June, and Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, was working on the final preparations for New Day, the morning show he was set to debut four days later. From the moment Zucker took over CNN in January 2013, he had been focused on getting the morning right. He was a morning-television savant, after all, having led the Today show on a storied run of ratings dominance. And CNN’s early show, Starting Point With Soledad O’Brien, had become a symbol of the network’s slide from cable-news pioneer to industry laggard. O’Brien drew just 260,000 viewers, compared with more than a million people who watched Fox & Friends and some 450,000 viewers of Morning Joe on MSNBC.

Zucker had built the new morning show around Chris Cuomo, a brash 42-year-old hire from ABC News and the younger brother of the governor. But finding a female co-anchor had been difficult. His first choice, CNN host Erin Burnett, balked. Zucker ultimately settled on Kate Bolduan, a 29-year-old Washington, D.C., correspondent. In meetings, Zucker gushed about Cuomo and Bolduan’s chemistry, speaking as if he had found a cable analog to Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. “I’ve never seen anyone test so well,” Zucker said.

But that morning, as he led the 9 a.m. editorial meeting, he felt as if his head were about to explode. It wasn’t because he didn’t like the updates he was getting from producers. He felt like his brain was in a vise. Afterward, at a luncheon honoring former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, he had the misfortune of being seated in front of a New Orleans jazz ensemble, a tuba blaring in his ear. The pounding grew worse, so he went home and climbed into bed. “I never leave work,” he told me recently in his office off CNN’s Columbus Circle newsroom. It wasn’t any better the next morning, and he called in sick. When he woke up Saturday, the left side of his face was completely numb, his left eye swollen shut, his speech slurred. “I thought I’d had a stroke,” he said.

He rushed to the emergency room at New York Presbyterian. The doctor told Zucker that it wasn’t a stroke. He had Bell’s palsy, a rare disease that attacks the seventh cranial nerve, leading to facial paralysis. While doctors don’t know what causes it, they believe high levels of stress — say, launching a flagship morning show — might be a trigger. The symptoms, the doctor said, would likely subside in a few weeks. “I’ve dealt with a lot of shit in my life; two-to-four weeks I could deal with,” Zucker told me.

He decided to return to CNN at 6 a.m. on Monday for New Day’s debut. He couldn’t afford to be out at such a crucial moment. New Day was important for CNN, yes, but also for Zucker’s legacy. He wanted to prove he could recapture his Today show success — not for his critics but for himself.

When he arrived that morning, producers were shocked by his appearance. “I’m not in pain. I know it’s a distraction. Let’s move on,” he told them. But he wouldn’t find any relief from his stress that morning. New Day’s debut ratings were actually worse than Soledad O’Brien’s show’s. That afternoon, he got more bad news: A neurologist told Zucker it might take three months for his face to fully heal. Even that turned out to be optimistic. “I haven’t been able to smile in 14 months,” he told me.

Photo: Dina Litovsky

In broadcast television, few have experienced higher highs, and lower lows, than Jeff Zucker. He was just 26 when he started as executive producer of Today in 1992, and he quickly turned the show into a ratings machine. By the time he was 40, Zucker was the CEO of NBC Universal. It was the fastest ascent up the executive ranks in television history. But what people remember most about his reign as CEO is not the company’s profits — fueled by thriving cable networks, a film studio, and theme parks—but the collapse of NBC’s prime-time lineup and the messy public war between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. In 2010, when Comcast acquired NBC, Zucker was forced out. He reunited with Couric to launch her syndicated daytime show at ABC, but the experiment flopped, and according to three sources, ABC was preparing to dump Zucker shortly after the show went on the air in September 2012. It’s not easy being a media mogul.

It was around this time that Jim Walton, the longtime president of CNN Worldwide, resigned under pressure. Zucker had been interested in CNN for years, but by this point the cable network was in bad shape — partly thanks to Zucker himself. As head of NBC Universal, he had pushed MSNBC to fashion a liberal response to Roger Ailes’s right-wing megaphone at Fox. The two loud voices at the poles left CNN’s low-decibel newscasts drowned out in the middle. Its viewership had fallen to its lowest levels since 1991. Though CNN’s website is a power­house, with more than double the traffic of the New York Times’, and the network remains profitable — to the tune of $600 million this year, largely derived from long-term subscription contracts with cable providers — the ratings were an embarrassment, especially in prime time. CNN executives discussed the disappearing audience in existential terms. How do you succeed as a straight news channel when people don’t get their news from their televisions anymore? Was it possible for anyone to return CNN to No. 1?

Zucker was hired to try, and the vigor with which he threw himself into the project showed how much he really wanted a win after a string of perceived losses. He spent his first official day in CNN’s Washington control room barking orders during coverage of Obama’s second inauguration. He quickly improved CNN’s onscreen graphics and brought back the iconic tagline. “I grew up watching CNN, and my memory of CNN is James Earl Jones saying, ‘This is CNN,’ ” he told me. He began leading the network’s 9 a.m. editorial meeting, something his predecessor never did. “He gave the place a jolt of energy it had never received during my tenure,” said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who worked on the Harvard Crimson with Zucker. Anderson Cooper related to colleagues that Zucker was “the first CNN president to actually watch CNN.” Junior producers were starry-eyed in meetings with their new boss.

Still, there was growing angst inside CNN about the fact that many of Zucker’s early programming concepts fizzled. It wasn’t just New Day. Crossfire, which Zucker reinstated after an eight-year absence, failed to gain traction and is now on an indefinite hiatus. Jake Tapper, a Zucker recruit from ABC News, has only produced a modest ratings uptick. Last September, Zucker launched a 10 p.m. panel show hosted by Cooper but canceled it four months later. “It was like an Upper West Side dinner party. You’d want to light yourself on fire if you found yourself there,” a senior staffer said. In February, he also canceled Piers Morgan’s interview show, which he had inherited. Conventional cable-news shows just weren’t working, Zucker concluded. “It’s very difficult to find talent,” he complained to a friend. Not to mention an audience.

In some ways, the trouble was with the news itself. CNN did well when there was an earthquake or plane crash or presidential election that people wanted to know about. But when those events faded from the popular conversation, so did CNN. “These are the slow news periods we cannot control,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington-bureau chief. And so, this fall, Zucker is embarking on the riskiest gamble in CNN’s four-decade history. To try to lure viewers to CNN in prime time, he is turning over the 9 o’clock hour — which had been devoted to talk since the days of Larry King—to high-quality (and expensive) original entertainment programming. Over the past year, CNN has rolled out nonfiction series like The Sixties, produced by Tom Hanks, and documentaries such as the SeaWorld exposé Blackfish. Currently, the highest-rated show on CNN is the weekly travel program hosted by Anthony Bourdain. On September 28, the network launched a series with Lisa Ling; this week brings the debut of Mike Rowe. By next year, Zucker will have a dozen original series and six documentaries in CNN’s schedule. He even developed fictional scripts based on historical events, though those projects were ultimately scrapped. “We’re doing some things that antagonize people who are so protective of the legacy of CNN,” he said. “We have to change.”

It’s not that he’s giving up on news. When there is a news event that captures the public imagination, it will dominate CNN and preempt the prime-time shows. Zucker calls it “swarming and owning the big breaking-news stories.” The strategy was most vividly on display during CNN’s breathless—and seemingly endless — coverage of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, lowlighted by anchor Don Lemon speculating on camera that the missing plane might have flown into a black hole. (Zucker was frustrated by the gaffe: “Don, don’t be an idiot.”) During the crisis-filled summer of 2014, Zucker flooded CNN newscasts with coverage of the Veterans Affairs scandal, war in Ukraine, the Ebola epidemic, the Israel-Gaza conflict, and the rise of isis. His decisions are based in part on what topics are getting traffic online; he starts every editorial meeting with the head of briefing the producers on the top five stories on CNN’s site. It seems to be paying off. Last month, during the height of the Ferguson protests, CNN beat Fox News in prime time on five consecutive nights in the coveted 25-to-54 demographic. “Chaos is good for CNN,” Zucker said.

Zucker’s give-the-people-what-they-want philosophy has attracted plenty of dissent from critics inside the organization who think (a) his entertainment programming is anathema to Ted Turner’s founding maxim that “the news is the star”; or (b) that news coverage driven by ratings rather than import is journalistically suspect; or (c) both.

According to CNN sources, Tapper vented to colleagues about having to cover the George Zimmerman trial so extensively, and Cooper protested the MH370 marathon. As for the entertainment programming, a veteran producer told me that it was “akin to McDonald’s taking reservations for dinner.” 

Outside the network, the chorus of Zucker’s detractors has grown even louder. In March, not long before Vice Media entered into ultimately unsuccessful talks about taking over HLN, Vice co-founder Shane Smith slagged CNN in the Daily News: “Everything they do is a fucking disaster.” In April, Saturday Night Live mocked Zucker’s missing-plane coverage with a fake commercial for a CNN-branded pregnancy test that constantly updates with no information. In July, Jon Stewart announced a $10 billion Kickstarter campaign to buy the network. 

Zucker responds to the attacks with a mixture of bluster and prickliness. “I don’t take Vice seriously,” he said. “They produce 15 hours of television [a month]. We’re going to do that between now and tonight.” Jon Stewart, too: “We’re on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He’s doing one seven-minute monologue four nights a week with 20 writers.”

Zucker tries to see the arrows flying his way as a measure of progress. “People talk a lot more about CNN today,” he said. “I’m a big believer in ‘It’s all good.’ ” When SNL’s Lorne Michaels called to give him a heads-up about the plane sketch, Zucker told him to just make sure they spell CNN right. 

The stars of Zucker’s original programming gamble. Clockwise from top left: John Walsh, Lisa Ling, Mike Rowe, Morgan Spurlock, and Anthony Bourdain.

One bright morning in August, Zucker bounded into a conference room on the fifth floor of CNN headquarters for a meeting with his programming staff. He wore trim, gunmetal-gray slacks and a matching golf shirt. About a dozen men and women were waiting to brief him on the status of the fall schedule and to pitch new projects. Executives in Los Angeles and Atlanta were visible on large screens hanging on the wall. CNN was only weeks from launching a slate of shows, and Zucker had a lot of decisions to make before he left for a vacation in East Hampton and then a tour of CNN’s Asia bureaus.

First up was a rundown of the fourth season of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. In the spring of 2012, Amy Entelis, CNN’s head of talent and development, had approached the celebrity chef about moving his popular No Reservations from the Travel Channel to CNN. Bourdain had reservations. “Our reaction was similar to what everyone else’s was. CNN?” Bourdain recalled. “This was very off-brand.” He sent DVDs to Entelis of three of his most outlandish episodes — one featured a fantasy sequence in which the television personality Samantha Brown drunkenly shoots him in the kneecap — expecting CNN to pass. Not only did CNN sign him, but Entelis and her team gave him more creative freedom than Bourdain says he had at the Travel Channel. Though Bourdain predated Zucker’s arrival, he, too, became a champion. “I thought Bourdain was the right strategy, and we quadrupled on the strategy,” he said. 

The discussion moved to the weekly crime series The Hunt With John Walsh. Zucker had known Walsh, of America’s Most Wanted fame, since his time at Today. Bringing Walsh to CNN became a test of just how far Zucker would be able to stretch the network’s brand. “We’re a reality show,” Walsh told me. It’s a characterization Zucker disputes: “It’s a different type of storytelling.” The Hunt debuted on July 14 to the highest ratings for the premiere of a CNN original series and won its time slot. Two weeks into the show’s run, federal marshals and police tracked a Walsh target, Charles Mozdir, a 32-year-old alleged sex offender who had been on the run for two years, to a West Village head shop. In a shootout, officers shot Mozdir ten times, killing him. “What John Walsh did through this storytelling of this creep and his capture and death was impact journalism,” Zucker said. 

Zucker became more critical as the conversation turned to This Is Life With Lisa Ling. The series features Ling, whom Zucker recruited from Oprah Winfrey’s network, conducting interviews with various eccentrics, from a gay rodeo cowboy to a traveling stripper.

What episode are we leading with?” Zucker asked.

Mormon pill poppers,” said a producer.

What does this even mean?” Zucker said.

There’s an epidemic of pill popping in Utah because they can’t drink,” the producer explained.

Rick, have you seen it?” Zucker asked Rick Lewchuck, a marketing executive in Atlanta.

We’ve addressed the honest concerns,” Lewchuck replied. (CNN ended up launching with an episode on “sugaring,” women courting rich older men.)

Zucker’s frustration mounted as he leafed through advertising concepts. “The research we got says you’ve got to be clearer about what the show is,” he said. He pointed at a sample. “This looks like Charlie’s ­Angels.” He flipped to another. “She looks like a murder investigator.” ­After a few minutes of debate, he approved a classy portrait of Ling with the show’s title in a clean white font. “We’re selling Lisa Ling,” Zucker told his team. “You can’t be too cute.”

But Zucker’s challenge in positioning the new series highlights the risks inherent to this programming strategy. On Fox News, viewers who watch Bill O’Reilly are probably going to enjoy watching Megyn Kelly and Sean Hannity. On ­MSNBC, it’s the same, only with liberals (and a much smaller audience). With Zucker’s shows, there’s no obvious through-line that connects Bourdain to Walsh to Ling to Rowe and Morgan Spurlock, except they’re a lot like what’s already available on other cable outlets. “It’s definitely not the model CNN is used to,” Entelis said.

Maybe Jeff Zucker’s career is an object lesson in the dangers of peaking too early. Or the hubris of leaving a winning team. Or maybe it just goes to show that it’s hard to capture lightning in a bottle once — let alone twice — in television. Nevertheless, he is dogged by the question of whether he can achieve something like his early success again. “Is Jeff a one-hit wonder?” a former NBC executive asked. “It’s the ­sophomore-album problem.”

To be fair, television has changed quite a bit since Zucker arrived at NBC as a researcher for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. “He definitely had a lot more hair than he has now, but the curiosity was incredible,” NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol recalled. When the Olympics ended, the anchor Jane Pauley recommended Zucker for a field-producer position on Today, where he was assigned to an ambitious young correspondent named Katie Couric. “At first, I was really put off,” Couric told me. “I was like, Who is this guy wearing girls’ tennis shoes and gray sweatshirts and he had no idea what he’s doing?” But Zucker quickly won her over. “He was this little ball of energy,” she said. “Edward R. Murrow and P. T. Barnum—a real showman.” Two years later, Couric landed in the anchor chair and Zucker leaped over more seasoned rivals, including his friend Phil Griffin, now ­MSNBC’s president, to become the show’s executive producer.

Broadcast news had been shaped, to that point, by legendary ABC executive Roone Arledge, who transformed Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer into American royalty. Couric and Zucker incubated a new, more democratic style. Her girl-next-door accessibility and public struggles — in 1998, her husband Jay Monahan died of colon cancer at 42 — helped her connect with members of an audience who wanted to feel like they knew the celebrities they woke up to.

It was a very magical aligning of the stars,” Zucker told me. “Between Bryant, Katie, and Matt, you had the three best people who did morning television. I don’t want to speak about myself because you sound like an asshole. But I think it was a strong combination that got the best out of each of us.”

Zucker’s Today became known for its entertainment stunts — “Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?,” “Today Throws a Wedding” — but he also tried to maintain the show’s journalistic credibility by moving commercials out of the opening half-hour and devoting it to hard news. And Today is where he began to develop his theory of blowing out coverage of hot-button stories, like the O. J. Simpson trial.

When, in the fall of 2000, NBC offered Zucker a job running the entertainment unit in Los Angeles, both his wife and Ebersol counseled him against making the move. “He was such a live animal,” Ebersol said. He thought Zucker would be frustrated by the pace of Hollywood and the lack of control he’d be able to exert over any given project. But Zucker told Ebersol he wanted the challenge. He convinced his wife that she and the kids could remain in New York and he would commute weekly.

Zucker’s ego, and his refusal to move full time to the West Coast, quickly created enemies in Hollywood. It didn’t help that he failed to produce generationally defining hits for NBC like The West Wing, ER, Cheers, and Seinfeld. Zucker’s contributions to America’s cultural diet were much more along the lines of his Today stunts: Donald Trump and Fear Factor. “They were able to pile on him because he didn’t back it up with hit shows,” said Marc Graboff, then an NBC executive vice-president. When Zucker went to Hollywood, NBC was No. 1 in prime time. Four years later, it was in last place.

Still, he kept getting promoted. Zucker had forged a close relationship with G.E.’s new CEO, Jeff Immelt. In 2007, Immelt named him CEO of NBC Universal. That fall, Zucker moved into a mogul-class apartment, buying the 11-room co-op on Madison Avenue that had belonged to the late actress Kitty Carlisle Hart.

Zucker was successful in a lot of arenas: NBC’s cable assets, which included USA, Bravo, CNBC, and MSNBC, thrived, and NBC News remained No. 1. But the problems at NBC Entertainment deepened. Though shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation received critical acclaim, they were still not pulling in large audiences. Zucker had turned the unit over to Ben Silverman, whose production company produced The Office and The Biggest Loser, but the move blew up over Silverman’s erratic management style. In 2009, Silverman resigned.* “When I hired Ben, every CEO in Hollywood called to say what a brilliant move it was,” said Zucker. “Bob Iger, Leslie Moonves, Peter Chernin. They all thought it was brilliant. Turns out it wasn’t.” Silverman, for his part, blames his former boss for the difficulties. “He didn’t care about Hollywood, and they certainly didn’t care back,” Silverman told me. “I was dealing with a boss who everyone hated. It was just bullshit.”

The nadir of Zucker’s time as CEO came in January 2010, during the three-week war between Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno for stewardship of The Tonight Show. “My biggest regret of that time,” Zucker told me. He was mercilessly attacked in the press for allowing the situation to spiral so badly out of control. Maureen Dowd, in a Times column headlined “The Biggest Loser,” dubbed Zucker the “network Napoleon who never bothered to learn about developing shows and managing talent.” Nikki Finke was particularly venomous, labeling Zucker a “thin-skinned prick,” a “humorless bully,” and a “pretender.” Friends say that one of Zucker’s great survival skills is that he doesn’t let this kind of public screw-up bother him for long. “He was really down for about 48 hours max,” Ebersol said.

One evening in August, I meet Zucker downtown at Babbo. “I don’t really go south of 42nd Street without a visa,” he tells me. Over dinner, I ask him about the narrative that persists in some corners of the industry that he’s failed upward. “The one thing we could not get fixed was NBC prime time. Fact. You want me to go scream it on the street?” he says with a flash of exasperation. “We had six consecutive years of best-ever performance in the cable division. NBC Sports? We’re the ones who went and bought Sunday Night Football. Universal Pictures? We’re the ones who bought Illumination Studios” — creator of the Despicable Me franchise — “and Harry Potter. I’m not trying to take credit for these things. But if things happen on your watch, both bad and good, you have to judge it collectively.”

Zucker pulls out his BlackBerry. “I just want to make sure the world hasn’t fallen apart.” At 9 p.m., CNN is scheduled to run The Sixties, but he told producers to call if they needed to pull the episode to cover the protests in Ferguson. “I think we’re okay,” he says, putting his phone down.

Zucker goes on. “I’ve dealt with a lot of shit, so when you talk to me about Hollywood, and some people in Hollywood not liking me, with all due respect, it’s not important.”

It’s true that while Zucker, who is 49, has been very lucky in a lot of ways, he’s also dealt with more shit than most men are faced with in the first half of a lifetime. When he was 31, three months after his marriage to Caryn Nathanson, an SNL staff member, he developed intense pain in his stomach. “I couldn’t go to the bathroom. I called my dad” — who is a doctor — “he was like, ‘You probably have hemorrhoids,’ ” Zucker recalls. He saw a gastroenterologist, and the diagnosis that came back was much more serious: colon cancer. While he was running the Today show, Zucker went through eight months of chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Three years later, the cancer returned. “We made a decision at the time to take out as much of my colon as we could without giving me a colonoscopy bag,” he says. With so much of the organ removed, Zucker suffers from chronic dehydration, which causes bouts of kidney stones and gout — “the most painful thing I’ve had.”

On the morning in September 2010 when Comcast COO Steve Burke fired him, Zucker was dealing with yet another major health crisis. No one knew that all summer he had been suffering from dizzy spells and shortness of breath on the tennis court. He had just returned from the Minneapolis Heart Institute, where doctors told him he needed surgery to implant a defibrillator to treat hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition caused by an abnormal thickness in the heart muscle that restricts blood flow. Losing his job was the least of his worries. “I didn’t care,” Zucker says.

Zucker walked away from NBC in 2010 with millions. Many people with his health issues might have downshifted. “I could go work on my golf and tennis games. I’d rather challenge myself,” he told me. In June 2011, Katie Couric recruited Zucker to help her launch her syndicated daytime show. The two had remained close through their post-Today ups and downs. Now they formed a production company called K-Z Productions. There was even talk of getting the old gang back together by bringing Matt Lauer onboard. But the show was problem plagued from the start. ABC paid an exorbitant amount to acquire it, which put pressure on Couric and Zucker to deliver ­ratings. As tensions mounted, their partnership unraveled. “She felt he was not engaged,” a person close to Couric told me. “She was coming up with all the ideas and the structure of the show.” ABC executives, frustrated by the dysfunction, moved to force Zucker out. Couric and Zucker stopped speaking when he left the show. She did not invite him to her wedding to finance executive John Molner this summer. When I asked Couric about the relationship, she told me: “He’s very busy, and I’m very busy doing my thing. I am so happy he’s at a place he can use his talent.”

Zucker refused to talk about his time at ABC, but it’s clear that by the summer of 2012, as they were prepping Couric’s show to debut that fall, he already had his eyes on a bigger prize. Shortly after Walton stepped down as CNN Worldwide president in July, Zucker received a text message from Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent. “We should get together ASAP,” it read. They met for coffee at the Viand on Madison Avenue. Zucker was hungry for the job. It was an opportunity he felt he had missed out on decades ago. In 1996, he was scheduled to interview for the position of running CNN when he received his cancer diagnosis. He never rescheduled. When they met in 2012, Zucker sold Kent on his vision for CNN’s revival. “You can’t be above it all,” he said. Kent came away impressed.

But over the next few months, Zucker’s enemies in Hollywood mobilized. Kent and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes received calls from power brokers like Ari Emanuel and Rick Rosen, Conan O’Brien’s agent at William Morris Endeavor, imploring them not to hire Zucker. “He’s a political animal. You’re going to destroy the organization,” Kent was told. Bewkes heard talk that the ambitious Zucker would go after Kent’s job.

The anti-Zucker campaign spooked Kent. “I was concerned at the volume of calls I was getting lobbying against Jeff,” he told me. “I was also well aware of everyone’s agenda.” According to sources familiar with the search, Kent began considering other candidates, including former ESPN executive Mark Shapiro and then–NBC News president Steve Capus. Zucker’s allies fought back. Ron Meyer, Universal Studios’ then-president, and Steve Lafferty, head of CAA’s TV department, called Kent and made Zucker’s case. In November, Kent finally offered Zucker the job. “I’m sorry it took so long,” he said.  

Since arriving at CNN, Zucker has made a conscious effort to avoid repeating the mistakes he made at NBC. He’s tried to shed his swagger and replace it with a man-of-the-people mien. When Graboff visited Zucker in his modest office, he thought it was a temporary space. “Nope, this is my office,” Zucker told him. Then there is the humanizing effect of his Bell’s palsy, the first of his health problems that he can’t simply keep private and barrel through. Last October, Zucker stood before a room packed with CNN executives gathered for a strategy meeting at the CNN Center in Atlanta. He began to speak but started to cry. “I told them that we had a lot to smile about and I look forward to the day when I could smile with them,” he said.

When I told him I could barely notice his symptoms now, it seemed to cheer him. But he said he still does. Watching one of his recent video presentations, he said, “I wanted to kill myself.” He’s been desperate for a cure, seeing an acupuncturist weekly since last year. “I don’t really believe in out-there, weird stuff,” he told me. “I say to the woman almost every week, ‘I can’t believe I’m still here. Anyone who knows me knows I’d never be here.’ 

All these months since his diagnosis, he seemed careworn and a little fatalistic. “Honestly, it’s just ridiculous. I did something to piss God off a long time ago. That guy has tested me a lot.”

Lean forward!” Zucker says. “Keep your shoulder down!” It’s a Sunday morning in September, and Zucker is firing tennis balls at me. Or, more accurately, past me. I’m getting run around the court at Sportime, the club on Randalls Island where Zucker spends several hours every weekend. As a boy growing up in North Miami in the ’70s, he excelled at tennis, breaking into the top 20 in the state in the 12-year-old division. “Then I didn’t grow, and everyone started beating me,” he says. Still, at five-six, he played No. 1 singles on his high-school team.

I haven’t watched CNN at all this weekend,” he tells me. “I’ve got to have a little ‘me’ time.” But it’s never that far from his mind. As Zucker approaches his two-year mark in January, it’s become clear that he has actually managed to move the needle. With major crises erupting around the world, CNN has beaten MSNBC for second place in the past two quarters — the first time that’s happened since 2010. New Day, after some significant tweaking, has shown promise, too; last quarter, it pulled ahead of Morning Joe. Zucker has even found acceptance in Hollywood. “It’s hilarious. They’re all trying to get on CNN,” he says. But Zucker has yet to produce a game-changing hit. “He’s got to find a couple of talents who really grab the imagination of a younger audience,” Ebersol told me. “The vast majority of the cable-news talent, they’re getting older, and the audience is getting older.”

Zucker is also under pressure to cut costs. This fall, for the first time in years, CNN is expected to announce more than 150 layoffs. Zucker recently told executives they would have to “do less with less.” “There is no silver bullet,” he tells me. “It’s not about a path to No. 1 here. What we talk about is making the network essential and better.”

How long he remains at the helm is another question. This summer, when Rupert Murdoch launched his bid to take over Time Warner, there was talk that a merger would result in CNN’s being sold — and that Zucker would be replaced by the choice of the new owner. When I ask Zucker about life after CNN, it strikes me that he’s clearly thought about it. “I’d like to run a professional football team,” he says. “I’d love to run the USTA, be the sports editor of the New York Times. Would I consider a run for political office? Yes.” At another point, he told me “it’s a reasonable assumption” to say this is his last job in television.

Zucker gives me 30 points a game and still trashes me 6-0. As we walk off the court, he’s drenched in sweat and limping, a result of two arthroscopic knee surgeries. He’d already been at it for two hours in a match against a friend who’s a former college player. “She beat me 6-love in the first set, then I beat her 6-4, 6-2,” he says. “I like being down 6-love and coming back. I like having to turn something around.”

*This article appears in the October 6, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jeff Zucker fired Ben Silverman in 2009. Silverman resigned from NBC.

Why Wouldn’t Jeff Zucker Take on CNN?