David Zaslav Likes to Gut Cable Networks. CNN Isn’t Easily Remodeled

Some multi-millionaires enjoy collecting vintage automobiles. Others take to the charity circuit or try to influence politics from behind the scenes. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav has his own hobbies. One of them is taking a crowbar to what he believes are underperforming cable assets and renovating them wholesale.

Zaslav has swung the wrecking ball time and again in his years leading the company once known as Discovery Communications, a collection of cable networks that had specialized in so-called “unscripted” programming — reality shows and documentary series. In 2008, he struck a pact with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions to transform the network once known as Discovery Health into OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network; scrapped a network once co-owned in part by The New York Times to create the true-crime stalwart Investigation Discovery; and flipped the outlet once known as Discovery Travel & Living Network into Planet Green, a network focused on the environment. When that didn’t pan out, it became Destination America in 2012, centered on American culture. In 2010, he tried to revamp Discovery Kids by forging a joint venture with toymaker Hasbro. Last year, the company refashioned DIY Network, an HGTV sibling focused on fix-it programming, around popular home-repair entrepreneurs Chip and Joanna Gaines and called the result Magnolia.

Zaslav’s company, now known as Warner Bros. Discovery, seems to be trying to do something similar with CNN. The problem? CNN isn’t a second- or third-tier cable network where radical business surgery can proceed unnoticed. In the past, it has been an integral contributor of operating profit to its corporate parent — not something most executives want to tinker with overmuch. And the makeover strategy that worked well — or, well enough; some of Zaslav’s revamps haven’t notched outsize success — two decades ago may be harder to put into practice in an era when doing so gives cord-cutting cable subscribers a new reason to find something else to watch.

Warner Bros. Discovery’s CNN efforts came to a head late last week with the publication of an in-depth feature in The Atlantic that puts the network’s deterioration in recent months at the feet of its relatively new CEO, Chris Licht. Under Zaslav’s aegis, Licht has worked to tamp down what had been a swashbuckling, even crusading CNN run by his predecessor, Jeff Zucker. It was often perceived as leaning left, and often cast in an antagonist role by former President Donald Trump.

Zaslav’s premise? “Democracy is under assault everywhere,” he told CNN staffers in March at a town hall meeting, adding: “We don’t agree on a lot in this country, but we need to be able to hear each other. And that’s the mission that Chris is on. That’s the mission that you are all on.” Executives at the company are eager to to burnish CNN’s news bona fides; its roster of on-the-ground correspondents; and its global infrastructure. They’d like to strip out some of the on-screen passion and opinion its reporters and correspondents were given leeway to exhibit under the prior chief.

Executing that vision has been difficult. Efforts to showcase straight news in primetime — whether it come in the form of town halls on specific news topics or shows led by Jake Tapper — have not overwhelmed in the ratings. A decision to move the provocative primetime anchor Don Lemon to mornings with Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins proved disastrous, with the trio failing to gel and Lemon gaining notice for dramatic interviews and remarks at a time of the day when most viewers are just waking up. Lemon was eventually fired, but it’s hard to believe CNN executives didn’t know what they were going to get. Throughout these fits and starts, ratings have fallen significantly, a threat to CNN’s ability to deliver ad revenue and leverage distribution discussions with cable and satellite systems.

Licht’s team is trying. The new Sunday deep-dive program “The Whole Story” gives correspondents a full hour to pursue a larger report and flex the network’s newsgathering muscles. And daytime blocks of “News Central” lend a kinetic feel, not unlike that of results popping on Election Night, to what have typically been more humdrum late-morning and mid-afternoon broadcasts.

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. CNN is projected 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.

Perhaps that’s why Warner Bros. Discovery installed a new chief operating officer over CNN on Thursday. David Leavy, a key Zaslav lieutenant, is taking over the unit’s business functions, reporting to Licht, but ostensibly freeing him to focus more intently on programming. Even this maneuver stepped on CNN’s work, distracting from a new marketing campaign and on-air graphics revamp that was put into place on the very same day of its announcement.

If Licht’s CNN has seemed like a great experiment, one in which a lot of spaghetti is being thrown at the wall, well, that was typical of Zucker’s early years as well. Remember the morning show led by Chris Cuomo, Kate Bolduan and Michaela Pereira that was meant to serve as CNN’s answer to “Today”? The “all-in” reportage on troubled cruise ships and downed planes? The reboot of “Crossfire”? The “CNN Quiz Show”?

But Zucker was able to do something Licht has not: inject new talent into CNN and bond with the people already in place. Zucker brought aboard Tapper and Cuomo, as well as Alisyn Camerota and Collins. He found new, prominent roles for veterans like Lemon and Brooke Baldwin. Under his watch, CNN struck a pact with Anthony Bourdain to produce a travel-and-cuisine series, “Parts Unknown,” that is as much a part of the fabric of CNN as Bernard Kalb or Larry King’s long-running interview program. Zucker’s tenure certainly had its share of controversies, but staffers who worked for him felt he brought a new profile to their work and they are loath to give it up.

Licht’s CNN will soon have a little new blood. It will launch a new weekly program in the fall that pairs Gayle King with basketball great Charles Barkley. It is likely not cheap. Barkley, however, is already under contract to Warner as part of its “Inside the NBA” studio team, while King holds down a more regular job at CBS News. Most of the other talent shifts at CNN rely on personnel already under its umbrella (and, according to agents, extremely nervous about the direction of the outlet that gives them their paycheck. Some have already departed).

Pleasing talent is difficult when the parent company pushes many of them out the door. CNN journalists have reason to be skeptical of a parent company that touts its newsgathering resources even as it shrinks them. CNN has cut ties with dozens of its employees, including veterans like Barbara Starr and Alison Kosik as its corporate parent grapples with crippling debt laid on top of it as part of the merger that put the Warner assets under Discovery control. Warner shut down the streaming video hub CNN+ within days of its launch, but has yet to fully articulate a new digital strategy for the outlet. And in a tremendously disrespectful sign, the company ousted long-running HLN morning host Robin Meade — anchor of what was at the time the only national A.M. program based outside of New York — and paid tribute to her two decades of service by making her and her crew do a single farewell hour at six in the morning.

There is more to come. Veteran Dana Bash will take the reins of CNN’s noontime program “Inside Politics,’ while Collins will seek to gain new traction at 9 p.m. CNN has to retool “CNN This Morning” in the wake of Lemon’s ouster.

Treating CNN like another media property to demolish and rebuild seems ill-considered. Warner Bros. Discovery needs CNN’s cash flow. To be sure, it’s tough to revamp a cable network, and Zaslav has hard-earned knowledge from doing so in the past. But changing CNN is like repairing an airplane while it’s already in flight. Everyone can see what’s happening, and if executives aren’t careful, the whole thing might crash.

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