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Zucker leaving CNN may change the long-term plans for CNN+, sources say

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Jeff Zucker, left, and David Zaslav
Chris Kleponis | Bloomberg via Getty Images; CNBC

Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav has a long-term friendship with outgoing CNN chief Jeff Zucker, who announced his sudden resignation Wednesday after failing to disclose an office relationship. But his ouster may actually help Zaslav better align CNN with his broader streaming strategy, according to people familiar with his thinking.

Zucker’s surprise exit will likely slow down advancement of CNN+, the standalone subscription streaming service Zucker has been building while WarnerMedia is still a part of AT&T. Discovery plans to merge with WarnerMedia at some point in the second quarter of this year.

Key executives at Discovery view CNN’s value as supporting a bulkier flagship product, featuring content from HBO Max and Discovery+, along with streaming sports, said the people, who asked not to be named because the executives’ perspective are private. They believe there’s less value in CNN+ as its own paid subscription service, said the people.

A Discovery spokesman declined to comment.

A full offering featuring the best content owned by WarnerMedia and Discovery would rival Netflix and Disney‘s bundle of Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ as staple streaming services for families looking to replace traditional pay-TV. Discovery announced Thursday it was in talks to add more European sports to Discovery+ through a new joint venture with BT Sport.

Zucker has spent the past few months hiring people for exclusive CNN+ programming, including former Fox News reporter and anchor Chris Wallace, New York University’s Stern School of Business professor Scott Galloway, author-chef Alison Roman and actress Eva Longoria. WarnerMedia hasn’t publicly announced a launch date or price for CNN+. Bloomberg News reported CNN was planning to debut its streaming service in March for $5.99 per month.

Those shows can add value to a combined Warner Bros. Discovery streaming offering. But Zucker’s departure could give Zaslav more freedom to decide how to proceed with CNN’s live programming and CNN+ without having to butt heads with a friend, two of the people said.

Discovery isn’t allowed to formalize decisions on future leadership for the combined company until the merger closes. It’s unclear what Zucker’s role would have been under Zaslav, though Zucker extended his tenure at WarnerMedia last year until at least the merger’s close to keep his options open.

Zaslav learned of Zucker’s resignation just hours before Zucker informed CNN’s staff that he was stepping down, the people said. It’s unlikely Zucker will return to run CNN after the merger, one of the people said.

WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar announced Wednesday three current CNN executives — Michael Bass, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz — will run the network until the merger closes.

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