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

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.”