EXCLUSIVE UPDATED: A month after John Skipper’s abrupt resignation as president of ESPN and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, a surprising name has entered the field of potential successors: CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker.
Reps at Disney could not be reached for comment, but multiple sources close to Zucker confirmed to Deadline that he has had conversations for the top job at the sports giant.
Following Skipper’s shocking December 18 announcement that he was resigning to deal with a substance abuse problem, George Bodenheimer — ESPN’s president from 1998-2011 and its executive chairman until May 2014 — took over as the acting chairman of the company for 90 days to help Iger find Skipper’s replacement.
There have been internal and external candidates rumored to be candidates for the job in the past month including ESPN EVPs Connor Schell and Justin Connolly, and Consumer Products and Interactive Media Chairman James Pitaro, who is well regarded internally and previously oversaw the development of Yahoo Sports.
Outside candidates that have been talked about include Turner Broadcasting president David Levy.
Zucker, whose current CNN contract I hear is up at the end of the year, is an intriguing proposition. He was able to reverse CNN’s linear ratings declines even before the Donald Trump-fueled political coverage ratings bonanza. He also successfully built the cable news network’s digital brand, overseeing a big online expansion.
Those are things Disney wants to see ESPN achieve. The network’s subscriber losses have been dragging down Disney’s stock price, even though prime time viewership is up. Disney also has been looking to better monetize ESPN and its programming in a multi-platform universe, including via a recently announced ESPN-branded OTT service.
In addition to spearheading CNN’s ratings resurgence, Zucker has been able to grow a slew of media stars, turning Don Lemon, Jake Tapper and Chris Cuomo into household names.
Zucker actually started his media career in sports, as a researcher for NBC’s coverage of the 1988 Summer Olympics. His brief stint landed him a job as a producer on Today where he subsequently became executive producer, leading the NBC morning program to its 16-year ratings dominance. He later served as president of NBC Entertainment, helping make Trump a TV star with The Apprentice, before ascending to CEO of NBCUniversal until the company was acquired by Comcast.
Zucker has worked at Disney before — he did a brief stint as executive producer on the short-lived Katie Couric syndicated talk show before taking the top job at CNN.
While at CNN, Zucker has clashed repeatedly with now-President Trump, who often has attacked CNN for its coverage he has dubbed “fake news.” With the AT&T-Time Warner merger in regulatory limbo — in part because of CNN, whose sale the Justice Department has demanded to approve any deal — sources have indicated Zucker may have grown restless, looking for a new opportunity after five years at the cable news network.
Still, Zucker is said to love his current post and does not want it to appear he’s lost the standoff with Trump, but a source noted that he always has wanted to do something in sports, and ESPN is an enormous job — bigger than CNN — and an opportunity he may not be able to pass up.
Dawn Chmielewski and Lisa de Moraes contributed to this story.