Entertainment

The Chris Licht Era at CNN Is Taking Shape


For the past month, ever since Chris Licht officially became the chairman and CEO of CNN, the place has been a swirling cauldron of leaks and gossipmongering about his grand vision for the 42-year-old network. The tea leaves are plentiful: He plans a laissez-faire approach to editorial. He wants to tone down partisanship and scale back blaring “Breaking News” banners. He has a close eye on the a.m. lineup, reflecting his past adventures with Morning Joe and CBS This Morning, where Licht made a name for himself before he became Stephen Colbert’s executive producer in 2016, turning the comedian’s then struggling late-night show into a rollicking success.

Despite the drip-drip of headlines attempting to piece together Licht’s emerging strategy—a new chapter for CNN following the much-ballyhooed Jeff Zucker era—it appears we’ll have to accept a certain level of suspense before any earth-shattering developments unfold. Licht’s daily calendar looks like a nightmare right now, and his summer is stacked with meet-and-greets and town halls at a bunch of CNN’s national and foreign bureaus, as well as dinners and lunches convening a broad range of personnel, from on-air talent to producers to digital folks (i.e., not just big shots at the top of the ladder). He’ll be in Atlanta, L.A., and London in the coming weeks, before making a stop at Cannes Lions and then trying to hit some of CNN’s more far-flung outposts later in the summer, such as those in Hong Kong and the Middle East. He’s also planning a swing through Capitol Hill to meet with prominent lawmakers from both parties. “It’s a role he’s familiar with from the relationships he made going back to Morning Joe,” said someone familiar with his plans.

The backdrop for all of this schmoozing is rampant speculation about what might be in store. Perhaps the most ominous portent on the horizon is the specter of cuts, as the bean counters at newly formed parent company Warner Bros. Discovery cast about for $3 billion in cost reductions—or maybe a little less than that by now, if you factor in whatever savings they may achieved from eliminating the $300 million operating expenses of ill-fated streaming service CNN+, which got shut down just a few weeks after its launch. In the words of one source, “I think the next story will be cutbacks. Financial pressure is immense.”

Some sources told me word on the street is that there will be reduced spend at CNN’s original series/film division and CNN Digital, but others poured cold water on this chatter, noting that Warner Bros. Discovery talked up CNN’s original series at its recent upfront presentation, and that digital was in a better position now that it wasn’t competing for resources with CNN+. (Licht has indicated that no cuts are planned for news-gathering.) Product and digital are hiring, which sounds like a good thing considering the steady exodus from digital’s leadership ranks. First it was chief digital officer Andrew Morse, who left amid the wreckage of CNN+. Then digital editor in chief Meredith Artley bid farewell. And in a Wednesday morning memo, Licht announced the departures of interim digital chief Alex MacCallum and chief technology officer Robyn Peterson, both of whom informed Licht of their intention to move on during his first week on the job. “A lot of brain drain,” one source said. (A rep for CNN didn’t have a comment on any of this.)

A number of other key positions are in the process of being filled, including the role of a new comms chief to succeed Allison Gollust, for which Warner Bros. Discovery has been actively recruiting. And of course everyone wants to know whom Licht will install at 9 p.m., which has been without a permanent host since the spectacular downfall of Chris Cuomo. But don’t get too excited—it’ll be a bit before Licht gets around to the big stuff. “Most people anticipate significant announcements in the fall but nothing major happening this summer,” a CNN source told me. “He’s still on a listening tour, assessing how the operation works. And then in the fall, I think people expect a series of announcements regarding leadership and show changes.”



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