CNN CEO Chris Licht will leave his post after a little more than a year at the helm after losing the support of staff and enacting a series of chaotic editorial changes under the direction of parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.
David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, told staffers Wednesday of the decision during CNN’s regular editorial call, according to three people familiar with the matter. These people said Zaslav and his team informed Licht as early as Tuesday that he could no longer stay in the role, which he assumed in May of last year. Licht was the subject of a disastrous profile in The Atlantic last week that depicted him as being aloof from staff, thin skinned in regards to press coverage, and annoyed by comparisons to his predecessor, Jeff Zucker.
In his place, a team of three executives will run CNN’s editorial operations for an interim period: Amy Entelis, a longtime CNN executive who worked with Zucker and helps manage talent relations; Virginia Moseley, recently named to oversee editorial operations; and Eric Sherling, recently appointed head of U.S. programming. David Leavy, a longtime Zaslav lieutenant who was named chief operating officer at CNN last week, will oversee business activities. Kris Coratti Kelly, who was named to oversee CNN’s communications in July, is leaving, according to two people familiar with the matter.
How long the trio is in place remains uncertain. Zaslav told staffers he was in no rush to name a new chief executive at CNN. Entelis is seen as an internal frontrunner to take on the top news job, according to one person familiar with the network, but may not mesh with Zaslav, because she is likely to push back harder on his directions if she does not think they are the best for CNN’s business.
“I have great respect for Chris, personally and professionally,” Zaslav said in a statement. “The job of leading CNN was never going to be easy, especially at a time of huge disruption and transformation, and he has poured his heart and soul into it. While we know we have work to do as we look to identify a new leader, we have absolute confidence in the team we have in place and will continue to fight for CNN and its world class journalism.”
Licht presided over a disorderly era at CNN, one that shifted anchors around in a bid to follow a new mission installed by the parent company: tamp down on the crusading tone the network took on during its coverage of the Trump administration under Zucker. But Warner Bros. Discovery did so in combative fashion, demanding more from staff even as it squeezed costs, scuttled new operations like the streaming hub CNN+ and gutted the ranks of the journalists working at the operation. Licht never meshed well with his staff, who had close ties to Zucker, and ran into trouble after holding a live town hall with former President Trump and moving provocative primetime anchor Don Lemon to a morning program where he clashed with his co-anchors. Lemon was ousted in April.
The results? Viewership has plummeted and projections for CNN’s business performance in 2023 are not robust. CNN is estimated to see 2023 ad revenue fall about 5%, to $562.6 million, according to Kagan, a market-research unit of S&P Global Intelligence, largely to declines in ratings. And a significant number of talented CNN anchors and producers have made their way to rivals like MSNBC, CBS News and ABC News.
Warner Bros. Discovery has only so much time to find a working plan for CNN. The 2024 presidential election looms, an event which gives rise to a news cycle that typically draws bigger audiences, generates higher ratings, and wins new sponsorships from advertisers. Its arrival comes as cable networks face an era of diminishing returns, when viewers are more prone to zap over to their favorite streaming hub and create their own primetime schedule. What’s more, advertisers have grown increasingly nervous about supporting news programming in a time when a fracturing audience has grown increasingly polarized and more prone to take sponsors to task on social media
Inside CNN, staffers are tired of the drama that came during Licht’s tenure, according to one person familiar with the network, but some have empathy for the executive. These staffers believe Licht was relentlessly micromanaged by Zaslav, and lay many of CNN’s problems — poor ratings, staffing decisions and programming gaffes — at his feet and those of Warner Bros. Discovery. The company has treated its makeover of CNN as if it were trying to revamp one of its unscripted holdings, like DIY or Travel Channel, this person says, rather than understanding how journalism is made and valued.
Licht’s arrival at CNN caused a stir. The TV executive enjoyed a spectacular streak as a founding producer of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” franchise; a creator of a new version of “CBS This Morning” that made CBS more of a player in the morning news race for the first time in a long while; and a showrunner at CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” helping that program gain new traction in late night after its host suffered a rocky start.
Yet he was dogged almost incessantly by questions over whether he could make the leap from running TV programs to operating a business as vast as CNN. The outlet’s scope is rivaled only by the BBC and the news holdings of NBCUniversal, and encompasses international operations; affiliate relationships; and advertising sales.
Licht arrived during a rocky moment. Zucker, his predecessor, was ousted himself after disclosing a romantic relationship between himself and CNN’s former chief marketing officer, Allison Gollust. CNN has been under the microscope for years as the Warner assets have passed from the standalone Time Warner to AT&T and now to Warner Bros. Discovery and as former President Trump cast the network as an antagonist.
Licht was supposed to bring an end to a period of disruption. Instead, he helped promulgate it. Meanwhile, more changes to CNN’s editorial operations are likely as the news giant seeks to gain new footing in advance of the 2024 presidential race.
More to come…