Licht’s Out

Chris Licht
Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
June 7, 2023

Chris Licht, the embattled and besieged C.E.O. of CNN, was never the most obvious candidate to helm a global news organization. Sixteen months ago, when I broke the news that David Zaslav had tapped Licht to run the network, I noted that he didn’t seem tailor-made for the job. Licht had a reputation as a wunderkind producer who could work with elite talent, yes, and he was aligned with John Malone’s rich older guy Big Sky vision of recalibrating the network’s politics to its centrist origins. But Licht’s C.V. consisted of programming a few hours of morning or late-night talk television with one or two or three principals, not the management or operational experience that might prepare him for overseeing a 24-hour, multi-billion-dollar, 4,000-person cable network in need of strong strategic leadership, not to mention new business and distribution models.

Now, after a year of leadership missteps, programming misfires, a disastrous Trump town hall and the near-total decimation of staff morale in the wake of a chilling all-access Atlantic story, Licht will be vacating the C.E.O. position. I’m told that Warner Bros. Discovery will soon announce that Licht will be stepping down as chairman and C.E.O. of CNN, ostensibly bringing an end to one of the most turbulent periods in the network’s 43-year history.

Licht will be replaced for an interim period by Amy Entelis, the revered longtime CNN executive, talent whisperer and CNN Films chief who served as a loyal deputy for years to Licht’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker. She will be part of an interim triumvirate that also includes Virginia Moseley, the executive vice president of editorial, and Eric Sherling, the executive vice president of programming. David Leavy, the Zaslav consigliere who was recently installed as CNN’s chief operating officer, will oversee the business side, including all commercial, operational, and promotional matters. In the meantime, Zaslav will conduct a search for a new chief executive.

Licht was informed of his ouster early Wednesday morning, I’m told. His top communications aides—Kris Coratti, who joined the company last August from The Washington Post, and Matt Dornic, a veteran of the Zucker years who became a member of Licht’s inner circle—were informed they would be let go later that day. And two more of Licht’s handpicked direct reports are likely to be pushed out as well this week: Chris Marlin, his head of business strategy, and Devan Cayea, his chief of staff.

As he stumbled through strategic and personnel matters (the layoffs mess, the Don Lemon botched firing, the morning show boondoggle, even the Trump town hall), Licht may have lost the faith of his colleagues, but he still had the support of his overlords, who recognized the difficulty of replacing Zucker and repositioning CNN and saw the declining revenue numbers as short-term. But the Atlantic story appears to have framed Licht’s challenges in a sharper relief. And Zaz, a bold and self-assured executive who likes to move fast (whether it’s euthanizing CNN+ during his first week month on the job, or rolling up HBO Max and Discovery, or pulling content off his pipes), presumably couldn’t wait any longer. In some ways, relieving Licht quickly was perhaps the most humane personnel maneuver conceivable.

A Long Saga

The shakeup at CNN comes, of course, after a year and a half of extreme internal drama at the storied cable news network. As I noted last week, Licht inherited an empire that had been burdened by years of reputational warfare with Trump; the surprise ouster of Zucker, a beloved newsroom leader; and the arrival of a new corporate owner in WBD that made no secret about its desire to cut costs and alter the network’s editorial mission. 

Still, Licht bears much of the responsibility for his undoing, for reasons I have chronicled here early and often: the absence of a business or programming strategy; his ill-advised office move from the newsroom to the 22nd floor, and all it symbolized; the prideful anti-Zucker posturing; the strange inner-circle staffing; the budget shortfalls; the Don Lemon debacle; and, of course, the disastrous Trump town hall, among many other things. As I’ve long noted, Licht was always going to be judged by his bosses on ratings, revenue and reputation—and he failed CNN on all accounts.

Still, Licht may have inflicted the most harm in what he did not do, which was to articulate a vision for CNN’s post-linear future. He spent his thirteen months at CNN rearranging deck chairs on a declining distribution platform, moving anchors from one time-slot to another and tweaking aesthetics that were invisible or irrelevant to the remaining viewers. While The New York Times Co. was diversifying into an always-on digital lifestyle brand with great journalism and video and podcasts (and games and product recommendations and recipes), Licht was creating milquetoast television for a bygone era that miffed his own employees and alienated CNN’s core audience. In the end, the fact that he failed to even succeed at the one thing he was ostensibly skilled at—programming live television—is one of the great mysteries of this whole saga. It’s poetic, in some ways, that Entelis, who oversaw CNN’s efforts into the cinematic universe of Bourdain and Tucci, will be taking over.

Perhaps the greatest mystery, of course, is why Zaslav himself believed Licht was the right man for this job. As I reported all those sixteen months ago, Zaz never interviewed anyone else for the position. Instead, he picked a celebrated E.P. and Hampton’s Labor Day party buddy with no experience whatsoever running a real business, and threw him into the job without any mentor to show him the ropes. (Zucker was gone, of course.) Perhaps that is a reflection of Zaslav’s own judgment. Then again, all judgements about Zaz’s stewardship of CNN have to date been shielded by Licht. That is undoubtedly set to change. 

Zaz is a tough guy with rhinoceros skin, and he’ll likely be able to recruit an ambitious and more experienced executive to course correct: CNN, after all, is still CNN. But in retrospect, given all the blunders, his biggest strategic miscalculation here may have been that Licht simply never had the personality or disposition to run the network. Of all the cringe-worthy moments in Tim Alberta’s profile, perhaps the most illuminating was the scene depicting Licht working out at dawn, calling himself a “machine” and making a crack at his athletic advantages over Zucker in the process. 

Yet, as Alberta reveals, Licht was at the end of his own weight-loss journey, having shed around 50 pounds in a few years. This physical transformation seemed to culminate at the same moment as a professional metamorphosis: Zaz had afforded him the chance to move from the control room to the board room. The tragedy of the Licht era was that it took him the better part of a year and a half to revert back to the control room guy that everyone loved, whose talent was obvious, a team player, etcetera. That’s a lesson I’m sure he’ll take with him on the next leg of the journey.

One last thought, too: In many ways, Licht became an effigy for anxious CNN talent, producers, and executives who not only missed Zucker, but also feared that he alone could stave off the decline of linear television. Licht may be responsible for many miscues, but no one figure can reverse an inexorable industrial decline or change the reality that CNN will become a smaller business over the forthcoming decade. Talent used to the royal treatment will get comfortable with less luxurious trappings. For people who cover the news for a living, this shouldn’t be a surprise, yet somehow it often has been.

This story has been updated.