On Wednesday morning, many CNN viewers were shocked when Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide, resigned over having an undisclosed, romantic relationship with a female executive at the company. But the reality is that Jeff Zucker’s contract with CNN expired at the end of 2021. And he had been very vocal in recent months about his plans to leave his position at the end of 2021.

According to reports, CNN’s internal investigation of disgraced anchor Chris Cuomo late last year uncovered a romantic relationship between Zucker and fellow network executive Allison Gollust, who the outlet described as his “key lieutenant for the last two decades.”

In a memo to employees explaining his exit, Zucker said he knew he was “required to disclose” the relationship to CNN “when it began,” but that he didn’t.

“I was wrong. As a result, I am resigning today,” he wrote

Zucker, who came onboard at CNN in 2013, was highly respected by the network’s top onscreen talent, and was widely understood to have a key role in shaping the tone and timbre of CNN’s coverage. 

Ouster Comes as Discovery Merger Finalized

Still, it’s convenient timing for CNN. Just one day before Zucker inked his resignation, the network’s parent company WarnerMedia finally revealed details of the planned, $43 billion Discovery merger. 

That deal, which will combine Warner with the Discovery Channel’s cable TV empire to form “Warner Bros. Discovery,” was a long-term strategic ambition of CNN founder Ted Turner.

What’s more, the Discovery merger was seen as securing CNN a future independent of Warner’s parent company AT&T, which was reportedly trying to shed the cable news brand it considered “something of a hassle.” 

“Whereas there had been concern that CNN would have to fight as a scrappy independent company in a spin-off, or [be] absorbed into another news organization in a sale, those fears […] faded away” when the merger was announced last year, according to the Hollywood Reporter

Jeff Zucker's contract ended amid scandal just a day after the Discovery merger entered its final stages.
Jeff Zucker’s contract ended weeks before he resigned amid scandal, and just a day after the Discovery merger entered its final stages. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Zucker was seen by observers as instrumental in making the consolidation a reality. Through informal text conversations and casual visits with his close friend David Zaslav — Discovery’s CEO — Zucker reportedly had a big hand in shepherding the deal through development.

His closeness with Zaslav wasn’t just a business courtesy. Zucker saw himself as being so vital to the merger’s success that he committed to seeing the deal through, even if it meant staying after his employment contract expired at the end of 2021, according to sources close to the network. 

A few observers read Zucker’s dedication to the Discovery merger as a signal that he planned to stick around at CNN. When the deal was announced last spring, some insiders thought the network would extend Zucker’s contract for another two years, as it had done in the past

Though the scandal is an embarassment for CNN, Jeff Zucker's contract was expiring anyway, and the Discovery merger was a done deal.
Some thought the Discovery merger meant that CNN would extend Jeff Zucker’s contract after its expiration in 2021. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Scandal Breaks as Jeff Zucker’s Contract Expires

Instead, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned from office in disgrace last August after he was accused of sexually harassing and groping aides. That scandal soon engulfed his brother Chris, when it was alleged the CNN anchor helped use network resources to dig up information on Andrew’s accusers. 

The network launched an internal investigation of the claims, which eventually led to Cuomo’s firing. But the probe also uncovered that Zucker and CNN Chief Marketing Officer Allison Gollust were romantically involved, apparently in violation of company workplace policies. 

With Jeff Zucker's contract ending and the Discovery merger almost done, CNN chose to let its president make his planned exit amid scandal.
With Jeff Zucker’s contract ending and the Discovery merger almost done, CNN chose to let its president make his planned exit amid scandal. Photo credit: Shutterstock

With the merger all-but a done deal and with Zucker’s contract already expired, the scandal posed the perfect opportunity for the CNN president to make something of a graceful exit. 

It’s probably not the way the media mogul envisioned his tenure coming to an end, but there is a silver lining: unlike Chris Cuomo, who was fired and thus ineligible, Zucker may be set to receive a lucrative severance package, just like when he lost his last gig

Will Jeff Zucker Get a Severance Package?

It is unclear if Jeff Zucker will get a severance package. Because his contract ended at the end of 2021, it’s unlikely he has a current clause in place for an unexpected exit. Chris Cuomo is not receiving severance after his firing.

Though the two exits are very different, CNN is concerned about public perception for two reasons. First, the company doesn’t want the Zucker exit to be conflated with – and dragged into – discussions with Chris Cuomo’s attorneys. Second, AT&T is planning to spin off WarnerMedia, home of CNN, as part of a $43 billion deal to merge properties with Discovery, which owns other networks.

Every step that Discovery CEO David Zaslav makes in the coming months will be endlessly analyzed and dissected. This is not a time for mistakes. Filling Jeff Zucker’s shoes presents a huge challenge. He doesn’t need another PR headache if information about a large payout leaked out.

But don’t worry about Jeff Zucker too much. He reportedly received between $30 – $40 million when he agreed to leave NBC Universal. At that time, Comcast Corp acquired a 51- percent stake, and Zucker agreed to exit.

Where do you think Jeff Zucker will end up next? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!