David Leavy, a longtime confidant of Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, was named chief operating officer of CNN Thursday, in a move that may free up CEO Chris Licht to focus more intently on news programming but could add a new level of scrutiny to the activities of the news giant within its corporate parent’s portfolio.
Leavy, who has worked at Warner Bros. Discovery and its predecessor companies for 23 years, will assume responsibility for commercial, operational and promotional activities across CNN Worldwide and report to Licht. The new executive appointment comes as CNN is struggling with a significant downturn in viewership and a recalibration of the activist tone it struck during the tenure of its previous chief, Jeff Zucker.
“David’s deep operational experience, institutional knowledge and key industry relationships perfectly complements the strengths of our leadership team,” said Licht, in a prepared statement. “He is a strategic, versatile and dynamic executive who will work with myself and the senior leadership team to help transform our business as we get the full programming slate on the air, build out our digital future and grow the CNN brand around the world. Everyone who works with David has seen how his energy, work ethic and collaborative style positively impacts an organization, and I can’t wait for him to join me and the CNN team.”
Leavy had been assisting Licht in recent weeks on a search for a new operating chief, according to a person familiar with the matter, part of a bid to unify the executive’s bench of senior reports. The two found they worked well together, this person says, and Leavy had been searching for a new role within Warner Bros. Discovery in the aftermath of the company’s recent merger.
Leavy is expected to start work on June 20th, and will be based in CNN’s Washington bureau. “I want to come in with an open mind. I have a lot to learn, and plan on doing an aggressive listening tour in the next few weeks to see where I can drive the most value,” the executive says in a brief interview.
In his first year at the helm, Licht has tried to tamp down a news report that had gotten emotional, even swashbuckling, in favor of a focus on breaking news and snaring interviews with newsmakers from a broader base. Licht’s tenure has set CNN to bring in Republicans as well as Democrats. A recent town hall with former President Donald Trump spurred backlash for giving him a platform to spread disinformation. Licht has also overhauled the bulk of CNN’s schedule, with new programs in daytime and primetime. A new 9 p.m. show led by Kaitlan Collins is set to debut soon.
Declining viewership isn’t the only headwind CNN has faced. The network saw its popular chief. Zucker, ousted due to a romantic relationship he had with the network’s chief marketing officer, Allison Gollust, just as AT&T spun off WarnerMedia for a merger with Discovery.
Leavy has broadened his portfolio at Warner Bros. Discovery over the years. He initially joined in a key communications role, but has grappled with such matters as media measurement; internal communications; and relationships with key Washington officials. He is expected to maintain oversight of public policy and social responsibility for Warner Bros Discovery, even as he settles in to his new role. But he will also have his hands full at CNN, where he will examine everything from ad sales to digital distribution.
“CNN is a major cultural touchstone. It’s a great brand, a great company and has great global reach. What is immutable today is that entertainment will be delivered digitally going forward,” says Leavy. “You see other digital-first news organizations like Vice and Buzzfeed News, they are not making it to the other side. CNN is so strong, so powerful, so culturally relevant, it’s going to make it to the other side.”
Leavy has played a significant behind-the-scenes role in many of Zaslav’s key initiatives. He has been involved in everything from the launch of Discovery+ to the acquisition of Scripps Networks in 2018. Before joining Discovery, Leavy served as Chief Spokesman and Senior Director of Public Affairs for the National Security Council and as Deputy Press Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Clinton White House. Leavy sits on the boards of the Motion Picture Association and the National Democratic Institute. He is a graduate of Colby College and the Salisbury School, where he now serves as Co-Chair of the Board of Trustees.
His new role illustrates just how big the CNN operations are. The company contributed the bulk of operating profit to its previous corporate parents, Time Warner, and encompasses international assets, an affiliate business and a vast digital portfolio. It remains to be seen whether Leavy’s presence will overlap with that of Chris Marlin, an executive who joined CNN with Licht last year and was charged with finding new lines of revenue, or Ken Jautz, a veteran executive who has long been tasked with managing CNN’s internal operations and infrastructure.