|It was Tuesday evening and I’d just returned home from my younger son’s back-to-school parents’ orientation—you know the drill: easing the nerves of the new parents, the drop-off rules, the pick-up routine, etcetera. I slammed the door of the Volvo and tried to take in the fading light and the faint chill, both of which presaged autumn’s arrival. (Transitions are all around us, always.) And then, naturally, I took out my phone to see what I’d missed during the past hour or so.
I scrolled through a gaggle of emails and Slack messages—devoted readers of this space know that the Puck Slack channel can rise to its own artform at times—and then noticed a text from my partner Dylan Byers. He’d just discovered that Mark Thompson was unequivocally going to be appointed the next C.E.O. of CNN. “Confirmed,” Dylan wrote. It was time to prepare a special edition of his remarkable private email, In The Room.
Sure, Puck has a healthy curiosity with the comings and goings inside CNN. To wit: Dylan broke the news a year ago that Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav was hiring Chris Licht, a promising TV producer, to run the network. Dylan then summarily covered the daylights out of Licht’s momentous tenure during the subsequent year—a veritable Boschian painting of ratings declines, aggrieved stars, momentous departures, and vexing programming decisions—before breaking the news that he was being defenestrated. I’m guessing that you may have noticed.
Throughout it all, Puck has published dozens (and dozens… and dozens) of stories about the network. Sure, we’re fascinated with the interpersonal drama that seems inevitable inside a journalism factory that’s had three parent companies during the past decade, and features a mix of ink-stained wretches and glamorous intellectual celebrities, alike. Furthermore, a news organization is a constant pressure cooker—a crucible exacerbated by the burdens of a public parentco and the understandable anxieties of live television.
My own obsession with CNN, however, may be slightly more prosaic. Businesses operate in a two-way marketplace in which they need to both serve their customers while, obviously, making money: it’s a simple economic architecture that relies on having a powerful brand layered on top of an enduring business model. And at the time that Zaz’s newly combined WBD took custody of the network, CNN was arguably vulnerable on both fronts.
During the historic Jeff Zucker era, the network had eclipsed $1 billion in profit while establishing itself as an incessant and indomitable fact-checking mechanism that held the Trump administration to account on an hourly basis. Did a few browbeating, self-aggrandizing anchors and correspondents go too far, perhaps using the indisputable honor of journalism as a vessel to create extracurricular opportunities for themselves? Sure. But did CNN deserve a reputation as a patently liberal mouthpiece?
To me, that distinction always seemed far too facile in an era that stretched from the Muslim ban through Charlottesville through one impeachment to Covid skepticism and January 6 to the second impeachment. By and large, CNN did its job in a remarkably hostile environment for journalists, and they deserved credit for their achievements. But we live in a polarizing world, Dorothy, and a great many people were taught to hate CNN without ever really tuning in.
Licht, a seasoned programmer rather than a business operator, went about trying to reshape the contours of the CNN brand for a quixotically nonpartisan world, largely via cosmetic changes. He transitioned the outspoken Don Lemon out of primetime, muted the chyrons, and took a bet on the immensely talented Kaitlan Collins, who had been hired by Zucker from The Daily Caller, the old Tucker Carlson digital rag. Lo and behold, more conservative voices began to appear on the roundtables, though they often seemed like creatures who had descended on the wrong planet—just as Jeffrey Lord had during the Trump years, before Zucker eventually got rid of him. Politics aside, it was often lackluster television.
Yet the bigger problem, of course, was that CNN had ballooned to greatness and cultural hegemony on the back of one of the greatest business models in media history: the cable bundle, which required households to pay handsomely for the right to watch television networks that they never even tuned in for. The rise of the bundle explains why the cable behemoth Viacom was worth around $15 billion as late as 2019. And the rise of cord-cutting explains why Paramount Global, the Redstones’ franken-conglomerate that combined Viacom with CBS, currently has a market cap of around $9 billion. Zucker had fashioned an over-the-top streaming option that Zaz nuked shortly after his departure, probably wisely given WBD’s newfound debt burdens. Anyway, the point is that America’s most famous news network hadn’t yet conceived a ballasty business model for a post-linear world.
And that’s partly why I was so fascinated by Dylan’s latest scoop. Thompson, after all, is both a programmer and an operator of the first order. He cut his teeth making shows for the BBC—which, as Peter Hamby always reminds me, remains the most trusted news brand in America—before ascending to director general, the top job. As C.E.O. of the The New York Times Company, he rescued the joint from its financial nadir. And he did it with an extraordinary mixture of aplomb and zeal. (Trust me, I was there.) Zaz got his man.
At the end of the day, however, our collective interest in CNN comes down to a simple fascination. The media industry is transforming before our eyes at a velocity that once seemed unimaginable. CNN isn’t a pinata or a petri dish—it’s both the past and future of media. Thompson’s Times playbook—invest in product, build out advertiser-friendly and habit-forming content sub-brands outside of core news, and subscription, subscription, subscription—has since become the magna carta of digital media. (Again, trust me…) His path at CNN will also likely become the foundational text for the broader industry.
If you have some time this weekend, I suggest that you curl up with Dylan’s piece Mark Thompson Gets the CNN Treatment and his follow up, Mark to Market, which offer the inside view on the transition that is always around us in media (and in life, alas, dear reader). And if you have any extra time over this long weekend, the curious and like-minded might also enjoy Julia Alexander’s Zaz’s New CNN++, which deftly explains the network’s value proposition in the streamingverse.
For all these reasons, and more, CNN remains one of the great stories of our time. And, of course, unrivaled coverage on the topic is the quintessence of what you should expect from Puck.