Earlier this week, I received a call from a notable CNN alumnus whom I hadn’t spoken with in over a year, since Before Times—before the Warner Bros. Discovery merger, before the infamous John Malone musings, before the Zucker–Gollust–Kilar–Cuomo imbroglio, before the anointment of Chris Licht and the internal resistance to his leadership, and before the recent spate of layoffs. This source was intimately familiar with the head-spinning changes that the network had endured in that span of time.
It was, we agreed, one of the biggest media stories of our time, especially given the global power of the CNN brand, its unique ability to cover breaking events from around the world, and its vulnerability to inexorable market forces and sometimes feckless corporate overlords. CNN, after all, is at the nexus of all various forces reshaping the industry. It’s a legacy asset beset by secular changes in platforms and viewing habits, a lack of trust in news, the streaming wars, the rise of S.V.O.D, the decline of linear, and the endless necessity of talent-stroking. In what other business do serious journalists don make-up to read cue cards all while exchanging sensitive information with the most important people on earth as they take orders from centamillionaires and whine to their agents? So, yes, it’s an important, interesting place.
And yet it obviously isn’t what it was. The contrast is best comprehended via stark relief with the immediate past. One year ago, CNN was led by a revered media executive who kept the brand front-and-center in political culture, even if it veered into #Resistance mode and engaged in some schlocky marketing. (To be fair, this was the era of “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”) The network was turning more than a billion dollars in annual profit, pursuing growth and preparing to launch its own streaming service in the hope—prescient or naive or fanciful, depending on who you ask—of shepherding the brand into the post-linear era.
Today, of course, CNN often feels tangential to the culture. It is drawing some of the worst ratings in its history, profits are down to $750 million, and, under the direction of a new leader with no prior executive experience, the company has scaled down its ambitions considerably. The streaming service is dead and the company is tacking back to what it was a decade ago: a nonpartisan, drama-free cable channel with a website, possibly destined to become an Americanized BBC. Truthfully, we don’t quite know yet since Licht hasn’t cogently articulated it to the market or, as my reporting has demonstrated, internally.
The Stewart Piece
The impetus for the former employee’s outreach was a recent New York Times article by Jim Stewart taking stock of Licht’s crash course at CNN. Stewart, the fearsome highly-Rolodexed former Journal columnist and author of Disney War, among other business tomes, recently authored a masterful, probing opus on the disastrous AT&T-Time Warner merger. But this was a decidedly different version of Stewart. The Education of Chris Licht was a delightful, if largely uncritical, confection of access journalism, sprinkled with some of the sumptuous details that the art often unearths.
To wit: the fact that Stephen Colbert, Licht’s old colleague at The Late Show, dissuaded him from taking the CNN C.E.O. job; that David Zaslav, Licht’s old pal and current boss at Warner Bros. Discovery, pitched him on CNN during a long walk in Central Park; that Licht demurred but Zaz unilaterally began the negotiation; and, naturally, that the WBD C.E.O. has fives on the corner table at Gramercy Tavern, just around the corner from WBD headquarters on lower Park Avenue. Most notable, perhaps, was Stewart’s disclosure that Zaz had started courting Licht soon after Discovery’s merger with the Warner Media assets was announced—the most significant fodder yet to those who believed that Zaz wanted Jeff Zucker gone all along. (I reported in September that Zaz had started soliciting Licht’s perspective on CNN around this time, long before Zucker’s ouster.)
The other salient detail from the Stewart piece, which I have also reported in the past, is that Zaslav never considered anyone other than Licht when looking for his new chief of CNN. Why he chose an executive producer from the world of late night and morning TV to lead a 24/7 global news business with 4,500 employees—and why he didn’t even consider other applicants—is one of the enduring mysteries of Zaslav’s leadership of his new company.
But something else stood out to this source: the article was the result of “several interviews” that Licht had given to the Times throughout the course of his eight-month tenure. And this brought a couple points to mind. First, amid all the aforementioned upheaval at CNN, the fact that Licht has been privately working on his own overarching image-making narrative piece since jumping into the gig seemed slightly narcissistic. Also, while the piece contained plenty of familiar rhetoric about Licht’s ambition for a less polarizing and less partisan editorial posture, Stewart’s article didn’t include any details on the strategy for growing the business or creating an identity beyond a just-the-facts news network. “The people who work at CNN are pretty smart. The idea that change is hard, or that there had to be layoffs, is not inconceivable to them,” the alum said. “The reason so many people feel rage toward Chris right now is, after eight months, there’s still no ‘on the other hand’—there is no plan, no vision, for what comes next.”
Those 3 R’s…
Vision is sorely lacking across the television news industry these days. As I noted earlier this month, the creative and hypercompetitive impresarios who once led America’s most high-wattage newsrooms have mostly been replaced by deft careerists who spend more time managing their C.V.s and Instagram accounts and BoD seats than they do in their own control rooms.
Licht, on the other hand, is a creative and hypercompetitive programmer by trade, but he has eschewed his natural talents for a corporate role for which he is notoriously ill-equipped. And so while he sets about implementing a brutal cost-cutting effort, he has simultaneously failed to notch any victories on the programming side. His one signature programming move to date is a revamped morning show that is struggling in the ratings and seems vulnerable to the warring egos of two of its co-hosts, Don Lemon and Kaitlan Collins. Sources close to both talents say their relationship has been tested in recent weeks by a few awkward on-air moments, including an aforementioned episode in which Lemon felt compelled to tell Collins to stop talking as she repeatedly tried to interject as he was reading the news. (“They obviously like each other,” Licht told Stewart. “The chemistry is great.”)
I’ve noted before that Zaz is judging Licht on three metrics: reputation, ratings and revenue. Licht seems to believe all three are interdependent. At the end of the Times piece, he tells Stewart that he wants CNN “to be essential to society,” and adds: “If you’re essential then the revenue will follow.” That isn’t entirely true, of course, as Twitter proved for years. Regardless, CNN seems to be increasingly less essential to the already rapidly declining television news-viewing audience.
After CNN’s first-ever ratings loss to MSNBC during a midterm election last month, the network got clobbered by MSNBC again this week during the special coverage of the January 6 hearings. As of last week, CNN is averaging less than 500,000 viewers in both daytime and primetime, and fewer than 100,000 of those viewers are in the advertiser-relevant 25-to-54-year-old demo. Of course, it’s hard to argue that you’re essential when fewer and fewer people are watching. Indeed, Licht may even know this himself. Stewart ends his piece quoting him: “Maybe it won’t work. But I’d rather try to win this way.”