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

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 Mefranchise — “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.”