Licht’s Non-Zucker Playbook Emerges

Chris Licht
Photo: Arturo Holmes/FilmMagic
Dylan Byers
May 4, 2022

Chris Licht’s first day as chairman and chief executive of CNN was, by his own admission in a company-wide memo, “anticlimactic.” By Monday, his first official day on the job, the news of his appointment had been public for two months. In the interim, he hadn’t technically been working, but he had on multiple occasions visited CNN’s New York headquarters and its Washington bureau, and taken meetings with the vast majority of top talent. Most notably, of course, he had also informed his soon-to-be employees that he would be shutting down CNN+, the $350-million streaming gamble that his predecessors had touted as the most important venture at CNN since the Ted Turner era. 

Licht’s informal two month listening tour was a truncated microcosm of the year-long high style Hollywood blitzkrieg embarked on by David Zaslav during the many months that Discovery consummated its merger with the WarnerMedia assets. Zaz’s well-publicized circuit romp ostensibly served two purposes. First, it allowed him to ingratiate a level of goodwill and comfort, to position him as a soother and fixer rather than a conquering bull. Secondly, it afforded him the chance to take the lay of the land in the upper echelons of the entertainment industry so that his management team could instantaneously get to work once the WBD deal closed—beginning the gruesome work of finding $3 billion in synergies, managing a debt load, and nailing his promise to Wall Street of $14 billion in EBITDA. 

On his final weekend before taking the helm, Licht was already inheriting the mantle and diving in. He was a fixture on the White House Correspondents Dinner party circuit, where he held court as CNN’s de facto leader and was spotted talking with current and prospective talent—including ABC’s Jonathan Karl, who, as I’ve reported, is on his short list of coveted hires. So while Licht’s tenure may have officially started this week, his reference to an “anticlimactic” start seemed like an acknowledgement that he’d actually been running the place for weeks.