A little more than a week after taking the reins at Turner Sports and adding it to his oversight of CNN and other news holdings at WarnerMedia, Jeff Zucker said his restructured mandate won’t change his approach to programming.
“I actually think news and sports are very much the same,” the executive said during a media breakfast with CBS to promote the networks’ upcoming March Madness basketball coverage. “They’re both about human beings and drama and stories. I actually think that’s why I’ve always gone back and forth between the two. That’s why I’ve always tried to bring the same approach to both. It’s all about telling great stories. These are all human beings and drama and telling a story.”
Zucker has had stints heading entertainment operations at NBC and producing Today as well as leading coverage of the Olympic Games and other sports at NBC. “There’s all this new technology and new ways to consume and watch but at the end of the day it’s a story and you’ve got to get that right,” he told a group of reporters. “You’re telling a story and you don’t know how it’s going to end. That’s why people still watch.”
There is a different kind of March Madness under way at WarnerMedia as AT&T looks to remove silos between divisions and combine operations to achieve efficiencies and a restructuring has squeezed out some veteran leaders. Even so, Zucker emphasized, “This is not about doing more sports on CNN or bringing more news to Turner Sports. I feel that you have to understand the audience you’re serving. …. Charles [Barkley, a Turner basketball analyst] doesn’t need any more exposure and Anderson Cooper doesn’t need any more exposure.”
Before Zucker met with reporters, he appeared onstage with CBS Sports chief Sean McManus and CBS play-by-play broadcaster Jim Nantz for a brief panel session. Talent from the joint tournament broadcasts, which tip off next Tuesday and conclude with the championship on CBS on April 6, sat at tables in a New York Hilton ballroom in an informal setup as the executives spoke.
“It will be a quick indoctrination” into the March Madness joint venture, which is in its ninth year, Zucker said onstage.
“In the last six years being in the news space, competitors want to take each other’s heads off. That’s an everyday event,” he said (though his swipes at Fox News last weekend show he’s willing to headhunt as well). A collaboration between two rival sports operations “is such a nice change.” He called the partnership “very rare in all of television.”
Asked about how CBS and the CBS-Turner NCAA teaming would handle gambling given the recent wave of state legalizations of it, McManus said it would be a cautious approach. “We’re not going to address gambling lines or over-unders,” he told reporters. “We’re not ignoring it but we think it’s an element right now that’s not appropriate,” at least on tournament games.