Jeff Zucker’s Successor Is… Chris Licht

Chris Licht with Jeff Zucker
Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
February 26, 2022

Last night, I reported that Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav had zeroed in on his choice for the next President of CNN. I also reported that star executive producer Chris Licht, formerly of Morning Joe and CBS This Morning, and now the person in charge of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, had emerged as a top contender for the position formerly occupied by Jeff Zucker. I can now report, based on conversations with sources who have spoken directly with Zaslav, that Licht is indeed the person who Zaslav has selected to run CNN.

Licht will run CNN as head of news for Warner Bros. Discovery, a source familiar with the matter said. Unlike Zucker, his purview will not extend to sports. Licht has a deal with CBS that expires in April, according to people familiar with the matter, but his hiring is likely to be announced at, or ahead of, a special Discovery shareholders meeting on March 11. (Zaslav and a spokesperson for Discovery did not respond to a request for comment. Licht also did not respond to a request for comment.)

There are a couple of immediately interesting elements to this development. First, on some level, it makes sense. As I detailed last night, the other names in the mix all had some notable flaws. Ben Sherwood, the former head of ABC TV and ABC News, had by far the most experience, but had detractors among many of the former ABC executives that now populate CNN’s top tier, including interim chief and programming whiz Amy Entelis and newsgathering SVP Virginia Moseley. The most frequently cited internal candidate, Andrew Morse, had digital chops and insight into the day-to-day but wasn’t seen as capable of filling Zucker’s shoes as a master programmer and business leader. (Also, let’s be honest, with the notable exception of Casey Bloys at HBO, the internal candidate rarely gets the nod in these situations.) 

Meanwhile, UTA superagent Jay Sures had the connections but not the broadcasting and journalism experience. (Disclosure: I am a UTA client.) David Rhodes always seemed like a name pulled out of Spencer Stuart hat—a name, sure, but someone who starred in a bygone era. Josh Tyrangiel seemed like a drive-by candidate. Anyway, I’ve since learned that Zaslav never spoke to any of the aforementioned names about the job. 

Licht, on the surface, doesn’t seem like a tailor-made candidate, either. He is nominally a super-producer, who has run shows but not a division. Also, his Colbert seems like the sort of liberal-inspired content that Zaz presumably wants CNN to evolve away from as he turns it back into a down-the-middle news machine. Recall, of course, the powerful Discovery board member John Malone’s public comments some months back about hoping to revert CNN toward the center, away from its Trump-era #resistance playbook—comments that pissed off Zucker and his inner circle, I was told. 

But despite these issues, the Licht hire does possess serious strategic logic. He was the co-creator and original executive producer of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, a mega-franchise that Zucker envied, and one that remains among the most influential shows in cable news today. From there, he went to CBS This Morning and ran the show through what are likely to be remembered as its best years. Few would have seen how a rebooted and more cerebral morning show could ever compete with GMA and Today. To be fair, it didn’t, but it became a very respectful third place finisher with a much smaller budget. 

His current success at the helm of Late Night is yet another extraordinary example of how you elevate a news product into the mainstream cultural firmament. Furthermore, after Colbert’s rocky debut on CBS, it was Licht who saved the network’s enormous investment—a move which made all his bosses look great in the process, too. Licht may not be Zucker, but he is undeniably the wunderkind producer of his generation with an ability to win over talent and see value where others don’t.

In the end, Licht seems like he might also be a model Zaslav executive. Despite spending the last several months charming the Hollywood in-crowd from his booth at the Polo Lounge, and buying Robert Evans’ old estate, Zaslav built his fortune creating immense institutional value out of unsexy assets, often out of the spotlight. And one imagines that Licht could represent the sort of press-shy workaholic who might fit perfectly into Zaz’s new Warner Bros. Discovery culture. Hiring an outsider, too, may help recalibrate the network toward its centrist origins. It will also certainly represent to the talent inside CNN that a new sheriff is in town. 

How will CNN staffers respond? Time will tell. But Licht’s past success with Joe & Mika, Gayle King, Norah O’Donnell, and Colbert suggest that he knows how to work with elite talent, and isn’t some quasi-creative beancounter off the Wharton conveyer belt. Almost immediately, one presumes, he’ll be focused on his first own signature hire—figuring out who replaces the recently defenestrated Chris Cuomo at 9 p.m. Whether Licht selects an insider or someone altogether new is likely to go a long way toward defining his relationships with talent in the building, and the high-powered agents who help call the shots three thousand miles away.