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. 

In that time, in fact, Licht has already made a number of significant symbolic moves that signal a radical departure from the leadership style of his predecessor, former CNN president and maestro Jeff Zucker. In addition to his corporate duties, Zucker was intimately involved in every level of CNN’s production and kept a direct line of communication with all the network’s top producers and talent, and even some of the rank and file. He led the 9 a.m. news meeting every morning and often dictated how the shows should process the day’s events and what they should cover. 

Zucker’s office—first at the Time Warner building, then at Hudson Yards—was right in the middle of the newsroom, which gave journalists the impression that their fearless leader was with them in the trenches. (This was one of the many reasons, indubitably, that the mourning over his sudden ouster was so intense and, at times, maudlin.) And while employees shuffled in and out of his office, Zucker kept a close eye on a wall of television screens in his office, and would make calls to his producer dulas in the control room if he had a programming idea, or thought a chyron needed to be tweaked.

Licht intends to be much more hands-off, sources familiar with his plans tell me. After spending two weeks in Zucker’s office on the 17th floor at Hudson Yards, he opted instead for a corporate office on the 22nd floor, at a far remove from the newsroom. (That office, coincidentally, formerly belonged to Ann Sarnoff, the recently ousted chair and C.E.O. of Warner Bros.) Licht has not, and will not, lead the 9 a.m. meeting, though he will be on the call. Perhaps most significantly, sources familiar with his plans say he will lead CNN not via ad hoc, one-on-one meetings with talent and producers, a la Zucker, but rather by delegating high level decision making through Michael Bass, the executive vice president of programming, who was a co-interim leader during the interregnum. 

The conventional media narrative has suggested that Zaslav and Zucker were East Hampton golfing bosom buddies who shared a media philosophy and animal spirit, but the reality is that they were radically different executives, stemming from their days at GE, the parent company of NBCUniversal. Zucker was the producing genius and ratings obsessed micromanager. Zaz was the deal-and-distribution and numbers maven with a more clinical world view. Licht, while endowed with plenty of Zucker’s gifts, seems to be managing himself into the Zaz mold. Perhaps that is why, on some level, he has been bestowed the title of C.E.O. of CNN. Whatever thoughts Licht has about CNN’s programming or editorial strategy will presumably go directly to Bass, not to the E.P. or anchor of any specific show. He will meet with everyone, of course, but he will respect the chain of command, the manager of managers, not the micromanager.

“I’m Not Here to Get into the Weeds”

Licht reinforced this management style in his memo earlier this week. “As a leader, I believe I best serve [CNN’s] mission by making sure the right people are in charge and by empowering them to do their jobs as effectively as possible,” he wrote in an email to staff on Monday. “I will be a very engaged consumer of our content, but I’m not here to get into the weeds of day-to-day editorial decision making. My goal is to support all of you in every way I can and not unnecessarily duplicate or undermine the efforts and leadership of the people running their part of the organization. I am here to set expectations, make the tough calls, fight for the resources you need, and remove any obstacles that keep you from doing your best work.”

There are some other interesting aspects of this emerging management philosophy. Licht, a star executive producer with plenty of experience in morning news and late night, but absolutely no experience in finance, will also forgo overseeing the financial aspects of the job (which Zucker also oversaw). Interestingly, he has instead hired his friend Chris Marlin, the founding president of Lennar International, the Fortune 500 homebuilding company, to serve as his head of strategy. In this role, Marlin will effectively be tasked with boosting revenue while Licht goes about the business of expectation-setting and tough-call-making. Licht has also hired an operations manager, described to me by some as a “chief of staff,” to handle his professional calendar. Licht’s responsibilities will, of course, also include ensuring that Zaz, his friend and boss, is happy with CNN. 

Licht’s decision to simultaneously levitate beyond the newsroom and delegate key financial decisions has left some CNN insiders scratching their heads about what it is he actually intends to do in the new role. Why would a programming whiz, the guy who essentially created Morning Joe and then re-created CBS This Morning and Colbert, box himself in? The answer almost certainly comes down to editorial vision. Licht, of course, has been given a mandate to re-establish CNN’s reputation for hard news and move it away from the self-righteous grandstanding that blossomed prominently during the Trump years. This pivot almost always gets misinterpreted as a sign that Licht will oversee a boring, just-the-facts news operation that seeks to stretch the nightly broadcast model over 24 hours. Far from it. Licht surely has some bold visions for how to reposition CNN. He just seems to be giving himself the space to enact it with a dollop of grace and aplomb, and a recognition that some things need to be fixed and eradicated before he digs in.

After all, like Zucker, Licht is a news junkie, just an addict of a different sort. Upon getting the job, Licht’s first statement stressed the importance of “NEWS” at CNN—emphasis his. In recent weeks, he has shifted to talking more about “journalism.” In his memo this week, he noted that regaining people’s trust would require “being an organization that exemplifies the best characteristics of journalism: fearlessly speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo, questioning ‘group think,’ and educating viewers and readers with straightforward facts and insightful commentary, while always being respectful of differing viewpoints.” 

Far from encouraging CNN’s on-air talent to button-up and read from a teleprompter, these remarks suggest he intends to create new forums for opinion and analysis that go beyond the tired and conventional partisan viewpoints often found on MSNBC and Fox News. Indeed, his mission may be to turn CNN into a network that can tolerate views from across the political spectrum that are often too nuanced to find a home on the strictly partisan networks, where loyalty to liberal or conservative orthodoxy is often a prerequisite. In this CNN, it’s safe to assume that coverage of Roe v. Wade will feature analysis from both sides of the debate, as well as from legal experts who will try to explain the rationale of the conservative justices—even if they abhor the consequences of the Court’s draft ruling. 

Whatever the case, Lich’s vision for CNN should become a little more clear on Thursday morning, when he hosts his first-ever global town hall for the network’s nearly 5,000 employees. There will be no seismic programming announcements here—Licht is still weeks, if not months, away from deciding who he wants at 9 p.m., what new shows he wants to add to the daily lineup and which talent he wants to elevate or relegate in order to realize his vision for a new, “journalism-first” CNN. He may, however, provide some clarity on the fate of CNN+ talent who are now in need of a home elsewhere in the Warner Bros. Discovery universe. This week, I learned from sources familiar with the matter that Chris Wallace’s interview show, Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace, will move to HBO Max. Wallace will continue to do work for CNN, as well. The maneuver appears to be a graceful way to respect Wallace’s stature in the business, try something new, and presumably keep him warm for future high-profile interviews or debates or bipartisan political tentpoles, perhaps a harbinger of what’s to come.