Next Tuesday, Chris Licht, the embattled chairman and C.E.O. of CNN, will face the toughest public challenge of his seven-month tenure when he sits down for a staff-wide town hall, moderated by anchor Alisyn Camerota. Licht will be questioned about the new round of layoffs that, I’m reliably told, will go into effect in early December, just before Christmas, and impact hundreds of employees. The leadership already knows who they’re going to cut.
When he first arrived at CNN, Licht demurred when discussing whether the network would be swept into Warner Bros. Discovery’s vast synergistic cost-cutting-to-service-the-$50-billion-debt-load imbroglio. He may have been dancing around talking points, but the current reality appears to many as a disappointing volte-face, and it has presumably presented Licht with an uncomfortable lesson in the challenges of C-suite management. Alas, the past six months have presented a significant learning curve for the former wunderkind producer. He was thrown into a historic division of a debt-laden company that had survived two horrific mergers and lost its beloved leader. Not even Jack Welch could have assumed the mantle of CNN without creating a few forest fires.
Next week, Licht will also be asked to explain the broad cost-cutting occurring across the network, which is reducing, among other things, CNN’s original films and series division to a shell of its former self. It will also result in a shrinking footprint at Hudson Yards, where CNN plans to eliminate certain floors and consolidate studio space. The daytime studio, the historic heart of the newsroom, has already been moved off the newsroom floor. (What you see behind the desk is now a liveshot of the newsroom). Finally, Licht will be tasked with reassuring staff that CNN can continue to be “the global leader in news,” despite a smaller staff, historically low viewership, and its first-ever ratings loss to MSNBC on an election night.
Licht got an early taste of the brewing backlash on Friday in a coffee-and-conversation-style meeting at the Washington bureau, I’m told, where he was asked some very tough and pointed questions about the layoffs and the cuts. The majority of folks I spoke to said he handled it well and was very candid and transparent, though others said he failed to provide any real reassurances about the future. By and large, I’m told, it actually went fine. But people are still skeptical about his message because of the original sin around demurring about the layoffs question. His biggest mistake, arguably, was not preparing people several months ago for how bad this was going to be. As a result, the mood inside many corners of CNN is bleak right now.
More with Less
The network has endured low points before—Jeff Zucker’s earliest days were marred by layoffs and ratings lows and a few programming failures, too. But what’s remarkable about this moment is the seeming lack of daylight on the other side. After those early days, Zucker turned CNN into a billion-dollar, growth-oriented business that was able to staff up considerably. Today, CNN’s foreseeable future is all about cuts and consolidation, doing more with less—and, in many cases, less with less.
Moreover, there are no large-scale wins to point to. The network just lost election night to MSNBC for the first time ever. The Jake Tapper primetime experiment was an utter failure. The new morning show is off to a very slow start. And, most importantly, all of this is happening at a time when the total addressable market for linear television is shrinking at a record clip.
Nowadays, CNN is claiming an increasingly smaller piece of an increasingly smaller pie. CNN may want to shrink in order to grow. But how can it do so when there’s no digital growth or shiny streaming service or original series division to point to? CNN.com remains the largest news platform on the web, but its monetization strategy relies on low-CPM video and programmatic advertising, unlike the Times, which has invested considerable technology resources in building an extraordinary direct-to-consumer product.
The Wolf Question
As I noted earlier this week, many in the media expressed surprise that Wolf Blitzer wasn’t manning CNN’s election evening coverage, and some expressed curiosity when Wolf returned on Thursday to lead the broadcast on the endless vote counting. I’m told that Tapper was always slated to anchor Tuesday and Wednesday night, then be off Thursday and Friday. He apparently had an event at Dartmouth University, his alma mater. Either way, it has struck some viewers as odd that CNN’s lead election anchor hasn’t anchored the last two days of election coverage.
Blitzer actually also had an event on Thursday; he was the emcee for the annual International Center for Journalists dinner, which means bringing him back was not the initial plan. In fact, Wolf was called in to anchor CNN’s coverage at the last minute, and MSNBC’s Jonathan Capehart stepped in to take his place. (I heard he did a great job, by the way.) So, I do think the decision to bring back Wolf—as opposed to another anchor—may have been a response to the criticism surrounding his absence on election night. And I think it’s fair to say the dynamic between Wolf and John King felt a lot more familiar for the CNN audience.
The good news emanating out of Hudson Yards this week, according to a CNN press release, was that CNN beat MSNBC on the day after the election, and that Licht’s new morning show, CNN This Morning, beat MSNBC’s Morning Joe in the demo on that day, too. But upon further consideration, it’s not that big of a deal. The decision to tout Wednesday’s victory only highlighted Tuesday’s loss. And, historically speaking, CNN usually outperforms MSNBC on the morning after an election night. By Thursday, Morning Joe was once again on top. Still, it was a silver lining after a long couple weeks, given that the new Don Lemon-fronted product has had a slow start—and one CNN clearly felt the need to make note of.
It’s premature to judge any show’s success after two or three weeks, unless you’re seeing a rapid and notable decline in viewership, as was the case with Tapper in primetime. Ryan Kadro, Licht’s longtime deputy who is intimately involved with the CNN morning show, has noted that CBS This Morning, which Licht executive produced, lost viewers for nine months and then grew every month for five years. That said, CBS This Morning never got out of third place behind NBC and ABC. So, there are different ways to measure success. But it’s probably true that the morning program only needs to be competitive to provide a return on investment for the network.
The truth, however, is that we’re quibbling over a difference of tens of thousands of viewers when CNN has much bigger challenges. CNN This Morning had 235,000 viewers in the demo; Morning Joe had 221,000. You combine those two numbers and we’re dealing with an audience the size of York County, Pennsylvania. I mean, social media networks don’t even register these kinds of fluctuations in their DAUs. So there’s a bigger picture here. They’re fighting for peanuts.