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WarnerMedia’s Zucker Returns To Sports Roots, And Another Chance To Remix An Industry

Well, that didn’t take long. Seemingly hours after a U.S. appeals court killed the Justice Department’s misbegotten (and, possibly, politically motivated) attempt to block the $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner merger, the Dallas-based telecom giant hit a big red button and blew up decades worth of Hollywood, New York and Atlanta corporate structures and relationships in film, TV, home entertainment and online.

And not many hours after that, one of the big winners in the resulting rebuild, Jeff Zucker, let it be known that AT&T and WarnerMedia will be very much in the game for more sports rights going forward.

WarnerMedia “will certainly continue to be a significant player in the sports-rights arena,” Zucker said in a Variety interview Monday. “WarnerMedia will continue to be aggressive when appropriate and strategic.”

Zucker, who has a history of stirring up the way TV gets done, should be in prime position to do it again, this time as WarnerMedia’s chairman of news and sports.

He’ll be backed by AT&T’s billions, vast audiences, cross-media reach and even broader ambitions. With that, the company’s new King of Live (I think that’s probably a better title for Zucker) can further stir up an already simmering sports-media scene that’s seen an influx of venture-capital investment hoping to make bank on legalized gambling and sports’ sticky, must-tune-in connection with its fans.

Zucker latest role represents something of a return to his roots. After failing to get into law school after Harvard, Zucker began his career doing research for NBC Sports’ Olympics broadcasts. He rose through NBC sports, news and entertainment ranks over the next quarter-century, revamping the Today Show and NBC Sports before topping out in 2007 as president and CEO of NBCUniversal. That Did. Not. Go. Well. 

As the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd noted in a subsequent column about Hollywood’s disdain for him, “Zucker is a case study in the most destructive media executive ever to exist,” another network’s executive said. “You’d have to tell me who else has taken a once-great network and literally destroyed it.”

Among other moves, Zucker tried to dramatically restructure NBC’s late-night TV operations, putting Jay Leno on in prime time, and moving Conan O’Brien up. Turns out, Middle America didn’t like people messing with its bed-time rituals. Zucker also presided over the network’s failure to find worthy successors to massive but badly aging franchises such as Friends, E.R., West Wing and Seinfeld.

We can quibble with that network exec’s tenuous grasp of “literally,” given NBC’s continued existence. But when Comcast bought NBCUniversal in 2010, Zucker was paid a lot of money to go away. After a short stint helping former Today Show chum Katie Couric try to revive her career at Disney, Zucker jumped to CNN, the 24-hour news service that played it down the middle as competitors Fox News and MSNBC were doing anything but.

Once again, Zucker switched things up, and this time, had better luck. CNN’s fortunes have significantly revived under his leadership, getting more partisan and tough-minded. Despite (maybe because of?) continued attacks from Donald Trump and his partisans who preferred Fox News’ thoroughly masticated coverage of their favorite president, ratings have rebounded and Zucker has become anything but dispensable under WarnerMedia’s new ownership and structure.

He also gets another shot at Remix Culture, this time with sports. To be sure, he already has plenty to work with, even before he wades into any major sports-rights deals, which will start to come out of long-term network deals beginning next year.

Turner Sports has been a close collaborator with the NBA (and with other networks that have a piece of the NBA pie, including Disney’s ABC and ESPN), with game broadcasts and a range of original programming on TNT, TBS and online.

He’ll also have access to sports assets in other parts of the AT&T empire.

AT&T’s DirecTV unit has been a close partner with TV’s King Kong, the NFL, through its Sunday Ticket showcase of all games. And AT&T has other sports partnerships, including one with WME/ICM on an esports initiative, and a shared deal with CBS to broadcast the NCAA’s crown jewel, the Final Four men’s basketball championship.

At minimum, you have to think Zucker will consider chasing more streaming and mobile rights as those come up, which will put AT&T in competition with not just the traditional broadcast and cable networks but also tech newcomers such as Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and Google that have been streaming some sports programming. The big winners in all this will be the leagues and their players, as bidding drives up the price of broadcast and streaming rights. But expect AT&T to be in the mix. Sports brings too much opportunity for it to ignore.

Zucker said he won’t have direct control over the other AT&T sports units, but will be engaged with them. In the short term, he said he’ll focus on opportunities in digital and with Bleacher Report, the former Turner unit that now has its own streaming service and a hefty online and social-media following, among other assets.

Last fall, I sat down in New York with Howard Mittman, who is now BR’s CEO. Mittman, a former Condé Nast magazine executive, said that thanks to Bleacher Report’s access to sports highlights and prominent writers, it can directly draw millions of visitors a month to its own site. That reduces the digital “tax” exacted by the big social-media platforms while letting BR build a deeper relationship with and data-driven understanding about its audiences.

“I don’t pretend that we have their scale or the capabilities, frankly,” Mittman said. “But I do think we sit in this interesting, messy middle space that allows us the connectivity that you get and the brand trust that you get as a premium publisher, but with the data and direct connection that you get from being a platform. And so, when we think about the world, we think about it differently than either the platforms do or the premium publishers do, because we’re kind of straddling both lines.”

Mittman’s team benefits massively from all those AT&T corporate cousins. It can tap big distribution audiences, advertising and cross-promotion possibilities, access to live TV rights and highlights, and lots more customer information and brand relationships. All that will prove even more valuable as legal gambling becomes more widely available nationally, Mittman said.

“I’m not casino, have no interest in being casino,” Mittman said. “But we’re focused on broadly socializing and normalizing the information in and around gambling, because it is pertinent to sports fans, even those who are not betting.” 

As in, if a star player on your favorite team gets injured, you don’t have to be betting on the game to want to know that player will be out of commission.

I’ll be interested to see how Bleacher Report evolves in coming months under Zucker. It’s a safe bet that Bleacher Report’s Internet and mobile strengths and cross-platform reach will be invaluable as AT&T pushes its radically reshaped $85 billion investment kicking and yelling into the mobile, streaming future.