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Zucker: Turner to remain a premium sports player, eyes emerging opportunities

Two weeks ago, almost no one expected CNN (US) boss Jeff Zucker to be among the key presenters at March Madness Media Day, including, by his own admission, Zucker himself.

But on March 12, the newly minted head of news and sports for WarnerMedia found himself facing a barrage of questions about the company's sports programming future. Notably absent was former Turner President David Levy, a chief architect of the college sports tournament's programming structure, which provides linear presentations across TBS (US), truTV (US), TNT (US) and CBS (US), plus expansive digital coverage. Levy resigned ahead of AT&T Inc.'s reorganization of WarnerMedia, which also elevated Zucker to his new sports role.

Following the executives' opening remarks, a crush of reporters descended on Zucker and CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus. Most of the queries were directed at Zucker and his sensibilities around WarnerMedia's sports portfolio. In addition to the partnership with CBS on the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship, the company's sports programming portfolio is highlighted by rights deals with the NBA, MLB and UEFA Champions League, as well as its digital and direct-to-consumer service Bleacher Report, and esports venture, ELEAGUE.

SNL Image

Jeff Zucker, head of
WarnerMedia News & Sports
Source: CNN

"I think Turner Sports is in terrific shape," Zucker said. "It's a combination of terrific premium sports packages, combined with some new and emerging business opportunities, and a fantastic digital outlet in Bleacher Report."

He said the company wants to add more premium sports holdings: "We will continue to be a player in the premium sports arena in the major sports that have packages. Obviously, there are not a ton of them that are available. There's great expense. But ... that will continue to be a part of what we're doing."

Zucker said he could not speak to whether DIRECTV is going to retain exclusive rights to the Sunday Ticket, the NFL's out-of-market package. "The NFL is an incredible partner to AT&T. Those decisions are made at a different part of the company," he said.

The WarnerMedia executive said many of the opportunities ahead reside with smaller sports: "The area of growth is in the newer, emerging sports that are not at that level and that require some business development."

Despite some technical difficulties with the sign-up process, "The Match," a pay-per-view golf event that pitted Tiger Woods against Phil Mickelson last year, is the "kind of thing we're excited about and would like to do more," Zucker said.

"The technological capability wasn't where the team needed it to be. It's obviously something that was addressed and will be addressed going forward," he said. "But the idea of it, the execution of the event, all of that, is something I'm very high on."

Asked about whether CBS and Turner would pursue future partnerships, Zucker said he is open to it.

CBS' McManus noted that the companies had also teamed on the PGA golf championship for a number of years. "We're open to doing partnerships if it makes sense for both partners," he said. "There's nothing specific on the books, but I could see us teaming with Turner on other properties."

Although the narrative around sports betting continues to rise, McManus pointed out the practice has still only been legalized in "eight or nine states" and said the tournament game plan does not go there yet. "We're not going to address gambling lines or over-unders," he said. "We think it's an element right now that's not appropriate."

McManus, who previously headed CBS News, and Zucker not only share that executive leadership kinship, but backgrounds in production. They said that affords them an advantage because they know how the process unfolds from bottom to top, while giving them a better sense for what viewers should see.

Relative to this tourney, McManus said he will be in the CBS control room in New York for most of it, before heading to the Final Four, slated for April 6 and 8 in Minneapolis.

Zucker, meanwhile, said he will be at CBS Studios in New York on March 17 for the tournament selection show, before heading to Turner's control room in Atlanta for the opening rounds. The rest of his itinerary is uncertain at this point.

"I still have some responsibilities on the news side," he said. "That hasn't changed."