CNN and MSNBC thrived during the Trump years, reaching new heights in ratings and revenue while devoting countless prime-time hours to criticizing a White House antagonist their viewers just could not quit.
Now faced with a Trump-less future, top executives at the rival cable news networks have summoned star anchors and producers to private meetings in recent weeks, seeking answers to a pressing question: What’s next?
People at both networks know that viewers who abhorred President Trump may no longer need their nightly therapy sessions with Rachel Maddow or Don Lemon. And President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. seems unlikely to generate the 24/7 grist of drama and scandal that resurrected cable news, taking it from a dying medium to a focal point of modern politics.
So even as CNN smashed a 40-year viewership record last month and MSNBC notched its highest ratings since its founding in 1996, journalists and executives at the networks say they are uneasy about the year ahead.
“What happens,” asked one MSNBC on-air personality, “when you don’t need us?”
The disquiet extends to the highest echelons.
CNN’s president, Jeffrey A. Zucker, is weighing whether to exit the network amid some tension with his new boss, Jason Kilar, the WarnerMedia chief executive whose background is in tech, not journalism. Mr. Zucker is mulling his options over the holidays and is likely to make a final decision early in the new year, according to several people briefed on his thinking. Last week, MSNBC announced a replacement for its leader of more than a decade, Phil Griffin, the architect of its popular liberal lineup.
This portrait of news networks in flux is based on interviews with nearly a dozen current and former on- and off-air staff members at CNN and MSNBC, most of whom requested anonymity to speak frankly about issues bedeviling top executives. Most agreed there would be a ratings slide in 2021, saying the only question is how big it will be.
Mr. Trump’s refusal to leave the political stage quietly has kept viewers watching through the postelection daze. In recent weeks, CNN is regularly beating Fox News, the longtime No. 1 cable news network, in total viewers. CNN has also led in the advertiser-friendly bracket of adults under the age of 54 every day for more than a month, its longest such streak since the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” has bested a Trump favorite, the Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends,” for four weeks straight, and MSNBC’s top-rated anchor, Ms. Maddow, has racked up her biggest wins in nearly two years. The unending pandemic has also kept the ratings up, a common pattern at cable news networks during events like wars, hurricanes and mass shootings.
But network executives, paid to strategize for months and even years ahead, are turning their focus to a post-Trump, post-vaccine America and the changed viewing habits they may find there.
At CNN, which has focused almost exclusively on politics the past four years, those questions are dovetailing with a shift in corporate leadership. The granddaddy of cable news is now controlled by AT&T, which picked Mr. Kilar, the founding chief executive of the streaming platform Hulu, to lead its WarnerMedia entertainment and news division.
At the start of December, Mr. Kilar toured CNN’s offices in New York and Washington and held one-on-one sessions with prominent anchors, many of whom he was meeting for the first time, according to five people with knowledge of the visits. Mr. Kilar sought the meetings to introduce himself and talk up his enthusiasm for their work as well as his latest project, a CNN-branded streaming offering, the people said.
The meetings coincided with uncertainty at CNN about the fate of Mr. Zucker, a hands-on leader who commands the loyalty of its anchors and star correspondents. A former chief executive of NBCUniversal, Mr. Zucker is known to micromanage the network’s journalism, calling control rooms and whispering in anchors’ earpieces during prominent interviews.
He is also the face of a news network besieged by a president who has tried to brand CNN, falsely, as the epitome of “fake news,” rallying his conservatives fans against it. Mr. Trump’s attacks have come at a time when CNN has received threats. In 2018, the network had to evacuate its New York office because of a mail bomb.
Mr. Zucker, whose contract extends through next year, is genuinely undecided about whether to stay, according to several people with knowledge of his thinking.
CNN is experiencing record-high ratings that few in the industry think will be matched again, giving Mr. Zucker an opportunity to go out on top after an eight-year tenure. On the other hand, he likes being in the middle of the action and feels obligated to steer the network through a period of political and corporate uncertainty.
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His new boss, Mr. Kilar, is viewed warily within CNN as a tech evangelist with little experience in news gathering, especially the blood sport of covering politics in a divided nation. And Mr. Zucker was deeply displeased when Mr. Kilar, who took over WarnerMedia in May, stripped him of several responsibilities, including oversight of the network’s communications and human resource teams, two of the people said. Mr. Zucker received a heads-up only just before the changes were announced, one of the people said.
Mr. Kilar, who is based in Los Angeles, did little to help his case among CNN’s journalists last month when he sent a note congratulating the network on its election coverage, only to include several factual errors in his opening two sentences. The memo incorrectly stated that CNN had “led the way” by calling Arizona for Mr. Biden (in fact, Fox News and The Associated Press had called the Arizona race days earlier) and erroneously said that Arizona was the final state CNN had projected (that distinction belonged to Georgia and North Carolina).
Since the memo went out, Mr. Kilar and Mr. Zucker met for a private, socially distanced lunch close to CNN’s Hudson Yards headquarters in Manhattan. In a sign that Mr. Kilar seems keen to keep Mr. Zucker aboard, the WarnerMedia chief executive offered praise for 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 loudly and clearly that I think the two best things to ever happen to CNN were Ted Turner and Jeff Zucker,” Mr. Kilar said.
In a separate interview, Mr. Kilar added, “I think it would be great for Jeff to be here for the next 50 years.”
At MSNBC, a succession has already taken place.
The announcement that Rashida Jones, a 39-year-old news executive who will become the first Black woman to lead a general cable news network, would take over from Mr. Griffin came as NBCUniversal is pondering how a network known for anti-Trump opinion should reconstitute itself in a Biden era.
Cesar Conde, the former Telemundo leader who is now chairman of NBC’s news division, has approached anchors and producers to discuss where MSNBC should go from here.
The network’s audience ballooned during the Trump presidency, providing hours of talk on impeachment, the president’s tax returns, Stormy Daniels, White House super-spreader events and the election.
But MSNBC viewers can be fickle. Producers watched in amazement as ratings nose-dived during “good news periods” for President Trump. Viewership dropped sharply, for instance, in the days after the release of the report on Mr. Trump and Russia by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, whose conclusions came as a disappointment to many Democrats.
MSNBC viewers also tuned out after Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and they largely skipped Mr. Trump’s State of the Union address in February, which took place when he was assured of an acquittal in a Senate impeachment trial.
With Mr. Trump so central to MSNBC’s ratings surge, some producers see a slide coming. Others at the network say that Trumpism — with its attendant partisanship and politicization of society — will persist, keeping viewers locked in even after Mr. Trump is no longer in the White House. For now, Mr. Conde is focused on finding ways to introduce MSNBC viewers to news programming on NBCUniversal’s streaming service, Peacock, and network-branded podcasts.
Mr. Griffin, the outgoing network head, ran MSNBC’s opinion shows, elevating Ms. Maddow in 2008 to full-time anchor. His replacement, Ms. Jones, hails from the reporting side of NBC News, where among other responsibilities she oversaw political events like primary debates.
Until the answers materialize, MSNBC can stick to business as usual as Mr. Trump continues to cause agita for its liberal viewers. This month, “The Rachel Maddow Show” is leading its Fox News competitor, “Hannity,” in the ratings for the first time since February 2019.
Nicole Sperling contributed reporting.