“What do you think is better about CNN since you arrived?” Chris Licht, who is now nine months into his tenure as CNN’s chairman and C.E.O., was asked in an interview this week with The Los Angeles Times. “Too early to say,” Licht replied, “because we haven’t really executed a lot of what we’re going to do. But I hope that CNN is better in that I’m allowing people to do their jobs and leaning into the talent that we have here.”
For many CNN on-air talent, producers and rank-and-file staff, more than a dozen of whom I spoke to after the piece ran in the L.A. Times, Licht’s remarks were frustrating and discouraging. To some, in fact, they manifested yet another sign that their embattled leader still does not have a strategy for the storied news network beyond cutting costs, per his mandate from Warner Bros. Discovery, and making the programming less politically polarizing.
In the meantime, CNN is suffering its worst ratings in a decade, profits are down more than 25 percent from the Trump–Zucker heyday, and the network has dramatically scaled back its ambitions, leaving primetime effectively vacant, neutering CNN Films and doing away with its streaming efforts entirely. Indeed, Licht’s way may be the only way, but you can’t blame the personnel inside the business for wondering what lies at the other end of the rainbow—and wondering whether, given the scant details provided, there is a plan at all besides more cutting, more streamlining, and a crossed-fingers hope that something works out.
Many of the sources I spoke with this week chafed at Licht’s decision to give yet another interview to the press in which he provided no specifics about the network’s future. Some also chafed at his use of the first person when describing the network: “You realize that I have the No. 1 digital platform in the world?” he said, referring to CNN’s digital business—a business that was No. 1 when he inherited it.
The most pressing question for many CNN insiders is what Licht intends to do with prime time. For months, he has floated the idea of bringing over talent from the world of late night—a Hail Mary that seems out of step with his desire to make the network less partisan, and an economic delusion given the asymmetrical goals of managing costs and placating late night talent. Licht insinuated as much, too, suggesting that he knew first-hand the cost associated with comedic programming from his time running Stephen Colbert’s show. In the L.A. Times interview, Licht denied that he was considering a pure comedy play, but confirmed that he was having “conversations with culturally relevant individuals from the worlds of entertainment, sports and comedy who can bring fresh and unique perspectives to the news.” He also revealed a new deal to simulcast Overtime, the streaming-only extension of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, on Friday nights. It’s an inexpensive deal, as Warner Bros. Discovery also owns HBO. It also runs the risk of making Friday nights on CNN more, not less, polarizing.
Licht has indeed been eyeing big talent beyond cable news. In recent weeks, he has approached Gayle King, the star of CBS Mornings, to pitch her on hosting or co-hosting a weekly show on CNN, sources familiar with the discussions told me. Licht brought King to the CBS morning show a decade ago, when he was its executive producer, and the two remain close. The proposal currently under discussion would allow King to continue anchoring CBS Mornings while also hosting the new weekly show for CNN—a situation not unlike the one Anderson Cooper has with the two networks, where he hosts a nightly show on CNN and also serves as a correspondent for CBS’s 60 Minutes.
The King of Prime Time?
King’s appeal is obvious. She is a celebrity in her own right, with several landmark interviews on her resume. She’s also the rare talent who would be as comfortable interviewing Joe Biden or the family of Tyre Nichols as she would be with a Will Smith or Jennifer Lawrence. In that regard, she probably has more potential than anyone in the media to become CNN’s next Larry King (Gayle King Live, anyone?). And, to the extent that there is still demand for that kind of programming, a Gayle-centered interview series could provide a much-needed boost to CNN’s ratings and reputation.
Of course, it’s very possible that the King deal will never come to fruition—either because Warner Bros. Discovery will decide it doesn’t want to spend millions of dollars to hire a new weekly host at a time of aggressive cost cutting, or because King will decide that there’s no upside in hitching her bright star to a metamorphosing cable news network. In either event, it would force Licht to once again return to the drawing board. Asked about the overtures to King, CNN spokesman Matt Dornic said, “Chris has talked to dozens and dozens of people to gauge interest in potential projects at CNN.”
In the immediate future, Licht will look to solve his primetime problems with his existing bench. Sources at the network say he is currently planning to enlist top anchors to host primetime specials. On Monday, The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright reported that these would take the form of town halls “pegged to big news and political events”—something straight out of the Zucker playbook. Then again, hiring Gayle King is also a move out of the Zucker playbook. Last year, just days before he was unceremoniously ousted amid an investigation into his relationship with Allison Gollust, a fellow CNN executive, The New York Times reported that Zucker had reached out to King to pitch her on taking over the nightly 9 p.m. time slot.
Meanwhile, Licht’s sole signature programming move to date, CNN This Morning, remains on perilous footing. The show had its lowest-rated week since launch earlier this month, averaging just 331,000 viewers—less than a third of Fox & Friends; and less than half of MSNBC’s Morning Joe—and just 65,000 in the 25-to-54-year-old demo. Some sources at the network also mentioned that Kaitlan Collins, one of the show’s three co-hosts, has had a hard time adapting to her new assignment as a morning anchor. Collins rose to stardom as a Trump White House correspondent, where she made a name for herself as a fearless, take-no-bullshit reporter, but has yet to find her footing behind the desk, sharing the spotlight with older and more experienced anchors.
In his L.A. Times interview, Licht gingerly acknowledged that he and David Zaslav had candidly discussed the full-throttle public nature of leading CNN through a three-dimensional transformation of the brand, its parent company, and the global economy. And it’s true that, in many profound ways, CNN has become a petri dish for the travails of the media industry writ large, as its largest incumbents manage the declining profitability of linear while simultaneously investing in the more expensive, lower-margin, mega-saturated streaming industry.
On some level, their frustrations aside, CNN’s employees shouldn’t need to urge Licht to articulate a strategy when the future is already playing out before them. There isn’t any programming masterstroke that will reverse the brave new world in which cable, and cable news, finds itself. CNN will occupy a smaller role in a rapidly enlarging entertainment media ecosystem. It will be less expensive to operate, helmed by more modestly compensated talent; the unit economics will be rejiggered. They can look no further than Showtime, once the second most prestigious brand in Pay TV, which yesterday became a shingle on Paramount+, the latest sacrifice at the altar of operational efficiencies.
Licht may suggest that he’s cutting to grow, but secular forces suggest he’s cutting to help Warner Bros. Discovery increase its own EBITDA and then find a dance partner for the next theater of the streaming wars. And at that point, it’s anyone’s guess. Ultimately, Licht’s strategy is to run with the current, without conveying just how depressing it is. Managing transformation is how it’s framed in the lingua franca of the McKinsey cinematic universe.
Alas, it’s important work and it sure ain’t easy. In his interview with the L.A. Times, Licht spoke—as he has since day one—about the need “to restore trust” in the CNN brand. That is one area where CNN insiders felt as though Licht should actually have been talking about himself.