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The Thompson Manifesto: A Sequel

mark thompson
It’s clear that the CNN veterans who once welcomed Thompson as a post-Licht savior have grown restless again—and not just restless, but anxious and angry. Photo: Brad Barket/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
March 1, 2024

This afternoon, CNN chairman and C.E.O. Mark Thompson sent his employees a progress report regarding his evolving vision for the network-cum-news-organization’s new, post-linear, multiplatform business strategy. This latest installment came some seven weeks after his initial, long-awaited manifesto, which disappointingly diagnosed some rather obvious maladies about the state of the business—to wit: that people consume news on their phones not their televisions, etcetera. This time around, Thompson “established five projects to design and implement change at CNN,” from building a new digital infrastructure and globally integrated workflow to “future-proofing TV production” and “developing new sources of revenue.” Once again, Thompson was diagnosing the right problems and asking the right questions, but his solutions were hidden within the corporate pablum. 

The response inside and outside CNN, for the most part, was a collective shrug. “From my perspective, nothing changes until culture and communication are addressed first,” one producer observed. “What a classic, jargon-filled, Dilbert-esque word salad of nothingness,” said a network veteran. And, to be fair, the memo did read like it came from the C.E.O. of Honeywell or Texaco, or, as one industry veteran quipped, an A.I. generator given the prompt for “inspirational way to foreshadow coming layoffs.” Of course, that may explain why the memo is so pablum-y: Thompson knows just how hard the real, impending truth is going to hurt. 

In any event, it’s clear that the CNN veterans who once welcomed Thompson as a post-Licht savior have grown restless again, for the umpteenth time this decade—and not just restless, but anxious and angry (the worst kind of restless). On the one hand, they get it: The business is changing, adaptation is paramount, and there will be harsh sacrifices along the way. Indeed, even the most successful digital business model won’t be able to sustain the profits necessary for the kind of hefty salaries that underwrote Don Lemon’s roughly $20 million payout. It’s also very likely that high-level talent across all cable and broadcast networks will be forced to sustain salary cuts in the years ahead—not just at CNN or CBS, but even NBC and Fox News. 

At the same time, the network veterans are also growing increasingly dubious about Thompson’s ability to guide them out of this morass, and anxious about the speed at which he seems to be abandoning the core linear product before standing up these to-be-determined digital revenue streams. In fact, the philosophizing inside CNN seems to coalesce around a sort of riddle, and one that profoundly reflects their own vulnerability and loss of confidence. Yes, yes, linear is in retreat, but CNN’s decision to accelerate its demise by not investing there could backfire and capsize the whole enterprise. Thinly veiled beneath employees’ outward pride in their historic enterprise is that it’s potentially a few strategic misfires away from becoming Yahoo.

To date, the actual strategy has ostensibly consisted of hiring back Alex MacCallum and handing out new titles and new mandates. In the meantime, even as he seeks to assure staff that “linear TV will be key to CNN’s audience and financial success for many years to come,” Thompson nevertheless appears to have almost given up on that front. That arguably makes sense, but it’s scaring the shit out of people—especially as the future prosperity of the parentco, Warner Bros. Discovery, feels increasingly in doubt.

Mark in the Dark

Without getting philosophical ourselves, the concept of the innovator’s dilemma revolves around the complexity of timing when organizations can disrupt themselves without undermining their business. Thompson seems to think the time is now, or perhaps a few years past. Under his newish leadership, CNN has abandoned its decades-long attempt to stand up a morning show built around charismatic personalities that might conceivably compete with the likes of Morning Joe and Fox & Friends. He has also maintained the Licht-initiated strategy of depersonalizing CNN’s daytime hours with generic, BBC-ified, three-hour, multi-host daytime programs. 

Finally, and most notably, he has stood by a primetime strategy built around hosts who, but for veteran stalwart Anderson Cooper, have failed to penetrate the national imagination or command a loyal following. The primetime lineup helmed by Kaitlan Collins and Abby Phillip—notable on-air talents, but still uncomfortable anchors—is increasingly seen across the industry as an irreparable failure. (Befitting the catty and unforgiving nature of this industry, one high-level talent agent was recently overheard referring to the latter as “Ambien Phillip”). The ratings have suffered accordingly: CNN has lost to MSNBC for 23 straight months now and last month lost the primetime demo, a historical anomaly. 

Of course, Thompson might justifiably dismiss the ratings as a red herring, and remind people that changing economics have redefined the metrics of success. But until he actually has a digital strategy in place—or, frankly, until he can articulate it cogently in a staff-wide memo—the strength of CNN’s brand relies on audiences feeling at least some semblance of affinity toward that legacy product. Unfortunately, Thompson has largely abandoned that effort, and the results on the core linear offering have thus fared no better than they did under Licht.

Indeed, from the linear perspective, there is far more continuity between the Licht and Thompson regimes than their disparate experience and leadership styles would suggest. The conventional wisdom about CNN in the WBD era posits a progression from error to atonement: First, David Zaslav attempted to restore the network’s reputation as a dispassionate, middle-of-the-road news service—cutting staff and dispensing with a few righteous anti-Trump chest-thumpers along the way—which backfired under Licht’s inept leadership. Realizing there were more existential challenges at play amid cable’s inexorable decline, Zaz then entrusted the very experienced Thompson to transform the business model for digital and streaming, all while preserving the semi-centrist posture with a more delicate touch. This narrative is true enough, but it overlooks that under both leaders, the linear offering has regressed dramatically.

One year ago, almost to the day, Licht embarked on what was arguably the most quixotic programming innovation of his ill-fated and short-lived tenure. After failing to identify a successful host to fill the long-long-vacant 9 p.m. hour, he instead hatched a plan to turn the coveted time slot into an ongoing variety show: a town hall one night, a single-issue special report the next, perhaps an old documentary the next. It was a radical and perplexing departure from the time-tested strategy of using a consistent nightly anchor or host, and certainly one that seemed ill-suited to compete with Hannity and Maddow. Yet Licht sought to prove, as one Variety headline put it at the time, that “news, not big names” could be the star.

The plan was doomed from its inception, of course, as seemed clear to every other television news veteran. Before the new format launched, one longtime media executive called it a “profound misunderstanding of how cable works in primetime” and rightly warned that CNN’s already listless ratings would decline even more. “No marquee value; no continuity or predictability, which are essential ingredients in television.” Indeed, this person continued, the entire cable industry was built on the precise opposite of the Licht theory—the idea that “stars are stars, they differentiate the networks, and the news is the commodity.” (The fact that Licht didn’t seem to understand this was ironic, since he’d spent his entire career producing shows helmed by marquee talents like Joe Scarborough and Gayle King.) Another veteran media executive was pithier: “The news can’t be boring,” he said. “Otherwise no one will watch. CNN has become PBS.” 

Past Is Prologue

Licht abandoned the strategy within weeks, and it was almost immediately forgotten inside Hudson Yards, either due to the dissociative amnesia that trauma sometimes provokes or, more likely, because Licht went on to commit graver programming sins: CNN This Morning, the Kaitlan-Trump town hall, etcetera. In retrospect, however, it’s a strategy that never went away. And looking back, the initial effort to rid the network of a few partisan voices actually appears to have merely been the start of a more transformative attempt to rid the network of voice altogether. 

And again, CNN veterans get it. “Change is never easy,” as Thompson wrote in his memo. But they still don’t understand why that necessitates forfeiture on a programming strategy that has sustained itself for more than four decades. Brand affinity is still possible in this business. Maddow and Hannity still command loyal followings, and MSNBC’s investment in Jen Psaki as heir apparent suggests it still believes in the star system. Scarborough & Co. host the number one morning show in Washington and New York; Wall Street wakes up to Andrew Ross Sorkin. NBA fans stick around for TNT’s halftime show because of Charles, Shaq, Ernie, and Kenny. And presumably, the star system that Roone Arledge created half a century ago will translate to streaming, as has already been evidenced by the immense popularity of Joe Rogan and Alex Cooper, among others. Doesn’t Mark want to at least try?

And yet, the legacy of the Licht era isn’t really about pivoting or programming, but the necessity of leadership in turbulent economic times. Jeff Zucker, whom I almost wrote an entire piece without mentioning, is occasionally faulted for editorial considerations of the CNN+ boondoggle, but he understood that he was the commander of an institution and wouldn’t be able to do a thing if he didn’t have the consent of his staff. CNN, after all, isn’t just a historic brand or news business—it’s an institution, just like the State Department or the Kremlin, a place where employees outlast their leaders. Thompson may have brilliant ideas about how to move CNN beyond its historic reliance on the cable channel, but he will likely learn soon enough that he can’t do it while ignoring the cable channel.

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