When Chris Licht was named chairman and chief executive of CNN, some mere eight months ago, he told employees that his boss, David Zaslav, had given him “one simple directive: to ensure that CNN remains the global leader in NEWS.” The mandate, with its all-caps emphasis on “news,” was actually more nuanced than Licht suggested, and contained within it the seeds of the Zaz-Lichtian thesis for what CNN should be, and what it shouldn’t.
First, the mandate was a repudiation of the anti-Trump grandstanding that had permeated the era of Licht’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker, and that had come to define the network in the eyes of its critics, and even some supporters who found it polarizing, or at least long in the tooth. Under Licht, the new boss suggested, CNN would air news, not outrage—which would hopefully draw back centrists, even if it alienated some power viewers, all in the name of expanding the network’s total addressable market and owning the middle in a market where Fox News had the right and MSNBC the left. Second, it was a declaration of CNN’s intention to focus exclusively on “news,” and not pursue expensive ancillary projects that could just as easily live on HBO Max or Discovery+, or not live at all.
There was a logic here. As I’ve noted before, CNN’s brand value—about $10 to $15 billion, by many estimates, given its $1 billion in profit—came from the integrity of its journalism and its unparalleled newsgathering prowess, not the fulminations of its most highly-paid anchors. As Zaz and Licht saw it, Zucker was potentially sacrificing the value of CNN’s brand in a bid for short-term ratings gains. To them, his notion of building out CNN further—through its own streaming platform, say, or Stanley Tucci and Eva Longoria-type lifestyle I.P.—was to miss the point. They wanted a smaller, shrunk-to-greatness, just-the-facts product, and the quickest way to articulate the thesis was, well, “NEWS.” The brand power would endure, they assumed, and people would continue to see CNN as a necessary fixture in their lives, at least for those big moments like elections and invasions, or the death of the Queen.