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CNN and MSNBC Fret Over Submit-Trump Future

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CNN and MSNBC flourished during the Trump years, reaching new heights in ratings and revenue as they devoted countless hours of prime time to criticizing a White House antagonist their viewers simply couldn’t stop.

With a future without a trump, top executives from competing cable news networks have invited star anchors and producers to private meetings over the past few weeks to seek answers to an urgent question: What’s next?

People on both networks know that viewers who loathed President Trump may no longer need their nightly therapy sessions with Rachel Maddow or Don Lemon. And President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is unlikely to be generating the 24/7 drama and scandal that are resurrecting the cable news and turning it from a dying medium to a focus of modern politics.

Although CNN set a 40-year viewership record last month and MSNBC had its highest ratings since its inception in 1996, journalists and network executives say they feel uncomfortable about the year ahead.

“What if you don’t need us?” Asked an MSNBC personality.

The unrest extends to the highest levels.

CNN President Jeffrey A. Zucker is considering leaving the network amid some tension with new boss Jason Kilar, CEO of WarnerMedia, whose background is in the technical field rather than journalism. Mr Zucker is pondering his options over the vacation and is likely to make a final decision early in the new year, according to several people who have been briefed of his considerations. Last week, MSNBC announced a replacement for its more than ten-year-old leader Phil Griffin, the architect of its popular liberal cast.

This portrait of changing news channels is based on interviews with nearly a dozen current and former on- and off-air employees at CNN and MSNBC, most of whom have asked for anonymity to speak openly about issues weighing on top executives . Most agreed that there would be a rating decline in 2021. The only question is how big it will be.

Mr. Trump’s refusal to quietly leave the political stage has watched viewers through the post-election stupor. For the past few weeks, CNN has been consistently beating Fox News, the long-running No. 1 cable news network, in overall viewers. CNN has been the daily leader in the ad-friendly group of adults under 54 for more than a month. This is the longest such series since September 11, 2001.

MSNBC’s Morning Joe beat a Trump favorite, Fox News morning show Fox & Friends, for four weeks, and MSNBC’s top-rated anchor, Ms. Maddow, has seen her biggest wins in nearly two years. The never-ending pandemic has also maintained audience ratings, a common pattern on cable news networks during events such as wars, hurricanes, and mass shootings.

But network managers who are paid to strategize over months and even years focus on a post-Trump, post-vaccine America and the changing viewing habits they may find there.

At CNN, which has focused almost exclusively on politics for the past four years, these questions come with a shift in leadership. The forefather of cable news is now controlled by AT&T, which has selected Mr. Kilar, founding director of the Hulu streaming platform, to head WarnerMedia’s entertainment and news division.

In early December, Mr. Kilar visited CNN’s New York and Washington offices and held one-on-one meetings with celebrity anchors, many of whom he met for the first time, including five people with knowledge of the visits. Mr. Kilar went to the meetings to introduce himself and to express his enthusiasm for their work and his latest project, a streaming service from the CNN brand.

The meetings coincided with uncertainty on CNN about the fate of Mr. Zucker, a practical guide who commands the loyalty of his anchors and star correspondents. As the former managing director of NBCUniversal, Mr. Zucker is known for managing the network’s journalism, calling control rooms and whispering in the anchors’ earphones in celebrity interviews.

He’s also the face of a news network besieged by a president who tried to falsely brand CNN as the epitome of “fake news” and to turn its conservative fans against it. Mr Trump’s attacks came at a time when CNN was receiving threats. In 2018, the network had to vacate its New York office because of a mail bomb.

Mr Zucker, whose contract runs until next year, is, in the opinion of several people who are aware of his thinking, really undecided whether he should stay.

CNN has record highs that few in the industry believe will be matched again, giving Mr Zucker the opportunity to stay ahead of the game after eight years in office. On the other hand, he likes to be in the middle of the action and feels obliged to steer the network through a time of political and corporate uncertainty.

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Apr. 14, 2020 at 12:00 PM ET

His new boss, Mr Kilar, is cautiously viewed within CNN as a tech evangelist with little experience in news gathering, particularly the blood sports of covering politics in a divided nation. And Mr Zucker was deeply dissatisfied when Mr Kilar, who took over WarnerMedia in May, removed several responsibilities from him, including overseeing the network’s communications and human resources departments, two respondents said. Mr Zucker only received a heads-up shortly before the changes were announced, said one respondent.

Los Angeles-based Mr Kilar did little to improve his case among CNN journalists over the past month when he congratulated the network on its election coverage, just to include some factual errors in his first two sentences . The memo incorrectly stated that CNN was “leading” by calling Arizona about Mr. Biden (in fact, Fox News and The Associated Press had phoned the Arizona race days earlier) and falsely stated that Arizona was the final state, that CNN had projected (That distinction belonged to Georgia and North Carolina.

Since the memo expired, Mr. Kilar and Mr. Zucker met for a private, socially distant lunch near CNN’s Hudson Yards headquarters in Manhattan. In a sign that Mr Kilar seems interested in keeping Mr Zucker on board, WarnerMedia’s executive director praised him in recent interviews with the New York Times, putting the CNN president in the same league as the network’s founder.

“I want you to hear loud and clear that the two best things that ever happened to CNN were Ted Turner and Jeff Zucker,” said Kilar.

In a separate interview, Mr. Kilar added, “I think it would be great for Jeff to be here for the next 50 years.”

A successor has already taken place at MSNBC.

The announcement that Rashida Jones, a 39-year-old news manager who will become the first black woman to run a general-purpose cable news network, would take over from Mr. Griffin came as NBCUniversal was considering how a network should be known for its anti-Trump opinion to reconstitute themselves in a Biden era.

Cesar Conde, the former Telemundo leader who is now the chairman of NBC’s news division, has reached out to Anchors and producers to discuss where MSNBC should go from here.

The network’s audience rose sharply during the Trump presidency, talking for hours on impeachment, president tax returns, Stormy Daniels, White House super-spreader events, and elections.

But MSNBC viewers can be moody. Producers watched in amazement as ratings plummeted during the “good news” periods for President Trump. Viewership, for example, fell sharply in the days following the release of the report on Mr Trump and Russia by Special Envoy Robert S. Mueller III, whose conclusions disappointed many Democrats.

MSNBC viewers also tuned out after Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation in the Supreme Court, largely skipping Mr Trump’s speech on the state of the Union in February, which came after he was assured of an acquittal in impeachment proceedings against the Senate.

Because Mr. Trump is so central to MSNBC’s rating rise, some manufacturers are seeing a decline. Other members of the network say Trumpism – with its associated partisanship and politicization of society – will persist and keep viewers trapped even after Mr Trump is no longer in the White House. Right now, Mr. Conde is focused on finding ways to introduce MSNBC viewers to NBCUniversal’s Peacock news programming and Network-branded podcasts.

Mr. Griffin, the outgoing network leader, ran MSNBC’s opinion shows and made Ms. Maddow a full-time anchor in 2008. His successor, Ms. Jones, is from the NBC News reporting page, where she monitored political events such as primary debates, among other things.

Until the answers are in, MSNBC can continue as normal as Mr Trump continues to create excitement for its liberal viewers. This month, “The Rachel Maddow Show” tops its Fox News competitor “Hannity” in the ratings for the first time since February 2019.

Nicole Sperling contributed to the reporting.

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Robert Dunfee