Chris Licht, the chairman and chief executive of CNN, has spent his early tenure at the network wielding a fine chisel. For four and a half months, he has chipped away at the edges of Jeff Zucker’s former news network— taming chyrons, discouraging sanctimony, unceremoniously ousting Brian Stelter, and allowing the departure of John Harwood and Jeff Toobin types—all in the service of refashioning CNN as a less polarizing, semi-bipartisan network that might ostensibly appeal to a broader swath of what remains of the television news-consuming public. Licht gets pissed when people assume he is following the indirect orders of cable pioneer and Warner Bros. Discovery board member, John Malone. But he is, at the very least, executing a Malonian strategy.
It has been a fraught effort so far, and one that has created a great deal of sturm und drang at the network, as apprehensive talent nervously try to appease the new boss while critics hyperventilate about what they fear is a reversion to neutered journalism and anodyne both-sidesism. There’s ample evidence that CNN’s journalism is not being neutered, of course—they continue to hold both Republicans and Democrats to account, report admirably on the war in Ukraine, and the tragically incessant school shootings deviling our country. But whatever one makes of Licht’s efforts, it’s undeniable that his early tenure has been defined by a painfully drawn-out tweaking of the existing infrastructure, rather than a bold, creative reimagining.
This week, at long last, Licht made his first additive move, albeit once again with existing parts. On Thursday, he announced that Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow, and Kaitlan Collins will anchor an entirely revamped morning news program slated to launch this fall, possibly as early as October. The show, which Licht has described perhaps too confidently as “game-changing,” will nevertheless be his most significant mark on the network to date. It is also a project that is near and dear to Licht’s heart, given his career-defining stints as executive producer of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and “CBS This Morning”—two programs that offer a template for Licht’s new CNN show and against which Lemon & Co. will compete. Licht’s stated ambition is to create “an evolved version” of NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” but of course one must work their way out of third before thinking about competing with first.