Chris Licht of CNN Faces a Crisis. Here’s Why.
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Chris Licht of CNN Faces a Crisis. Here’s Why.

Jul 07, 2023

Mr. Licht, the network's chief executive, said on an internal call on Monday that he would "fight like hell" to win back the trust of the network.

Ratings for CNN have been down considerably since Chris Licht took over as chief executive.Credit...Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

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By John Koblin and Benjamin Mullin

Ratings have plummeted. Profits have shrunk. A top star has been pushed out.

CNN has had a tumultuous first year under Chris Licht, who took over as the network's chief executive last spring. And then on Friday, a 15,000-word profile of Mr. Licht in The Atlantic cast new doubts about his leadership and future at the company.

All the turmoil has led some staff members to speculate privately in recent days about whether Mr. Licht will last as the chief executive — and whether he should. Also fueling speculation was a decision last week to appoint David Leavy — a trusted associate of David Zaslav, the chief executive of CNN's parent — to a top leadership role at the network, a sign that Mr. Zaslav thinks CNN needs urgent management help.

Mr. Licht addressed the tumult on an editorial call Monday, saying he will "fight like hell" to win back the trust of CNN's staff.

"I know these past few days have been very hard for this group," he said, "and I fully recognize that this news cycle and my role in it overshadowed the incredible week of reporting that we just had, and distracted from the work of every single journalist in this organization. And for that, I am sorry."

CNN declined to comment beyond Mr. Licht's remarks on the call.

Here are some of the numerous issues that have plagued the network over the past year.

A programming mistake or two could be overlooked if offset by a string of ratings wins elsewhere. But in Mr. Licht's 13 months, those wins have been in short supply.

Ratings for CNN have been down considerably since Mr. Licht took over. Over the past month, the conservative news network Newsmax drew more viewers than CNN several times, a once inconceivable notion.

Mr. Licht took his time trying to find a 9 p.m. anchor — a vacancy he inherited — and the network's viewership figures plunged during the wait. A brief stab last fall — putting Jake Tapper in the 9 p.m. slot, billed as a temporary assignment — drew lukewarm interest from viewers. And in February, Mr. Licht began an experiment to fill that hour with town halls, single-topic episodes and high-profile interviews.

The experiment was a dud, and CNN saw some of its lowest viewership in more than two decades. By May, Mr. Licht had decided to tap Kaitlan Collins for 9 p.m. after she showed some ratings strength as a prime-time guest anchor. He has not announced a permanent replacement for the 10 p.m. slot.

Some recent programming changes have given network executives hope, including an overhaul of the daytime lineup, and a new Sunday newsmagazine with the anchor Anderson Cooper. The network's comprehensive coverage of major breaking news events has remained steady.

One of the biggest miscues under Mr. Licht was his very first big programming move as chief executive: remaking the network's morning show.

It made sense that Mr. Licht's first signature overhaul would be in the mornings. He was, after all, a morning show impresario, serving successful tenures at "Morning Joe" and "CBS This Morning."

"The show will set the tone of the entire day, and it will set the tone for the news organization," Mr. Licht said in September, two months before the show, renamed "CNN This Morning," began.

He brought together three anchors: Don Lemon, the network's outspoken 10 p.m. anchor; Poppy Harlow, a steady 14-year veteran of the network; and Ms. Collins, the then-30-year-old star-in-the-making White House reporter.

But the ratings for the show out of the gate were moribund. And tensions on set escalated sharply in February when Mr. Lemon said on the air that the politician Nikki Haley, 51, wasn't "in her prime."

By April, Mr. Licht fired Mr. Lemon. A few weeks later, he reassigned Ms. Collins to her new prime-time slot. Just months after it premiered, the morning show will need to be revamped yet again.

Before Mr. Licht's arrival, CNN had generated more than $1 billion in profits for each of the previous several years. But last year, CNN generated about $750 million in profit, down from about $1.25 billion the previous year. (The lower number included about $200 million in one-time losses from the CNN+ streaming service, Warner Bros. Discovery said.)

Some employees at CNN have grown frustrated with Chris Marlin, the network's head of strategy and business operations, who was hired by Mr. Licht. Employees who have worked with Mr. Marlin, a longtime friend of Mr. Licht's, have complained that he has little experience managing major cable news networks — he previously worked at the Florida homebuilder Lennar — and have been baffled by some of the ideas he has championed, including expanding CNN's digital business into international regions like China.

No single editorial decision by Mr. Licht has been more criticized than his handling of a town hall with former President Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Licht's boss, Mr. Zaslav, has said he believes that CNN's coverage veered too far into "advocacy" journalism under his predecessor, Jeff Zucker. Mr. Licht has sought to include on-air perspectives from commentators and newsmakers across the political spectrum, including conservatives.

A major test of that strategy came on the town hall on May 10, when Mr. Trump unleashed a torrent of falsehoods to a cheering and adoring crowd, including when he referred to the town hall's moderator, Ms. Collins, as a "nasty woman."

The broadcast was widely criticized, inside and outside the network. Some on-air talent looked dazed after the town hall had wrapped up, and Christiane Amanpour, one of the network's top hosts, took issue with the forum, saying she and Mr. Licht "respectfully disagree" about allowing Mr. Trump to appear on a town hall in that format.

Mr. Licht defended the decision to host the town hall, and said "America was served very well" by the broadcast. Mr. Cooper, the CNN anchor, argued on air that the network's forum with Mr. Trump prepared voters to make an informed decision.

"After last night, none of us can say, ‘I didn't know what's out there,’" Mr. Cooper said.

Amid the difficulty, Mr. Licht has confronted a crisis of confidence among his staff members, many of whom think he is out of touch with journalists at the network.

After joining CNN last year, Mr. Licht took offices on the 22nd floor, high above the newsroom, which some of his employees interpreted as aloofness.

Some employees were particularly stung by Mr. Licht's remarks to The Atlantic criticizing the network's coverage of Covid-19, which many employees were hearing for the first time.

Over the last few months, many on the staff have called Mr. Licht's predecessor, Mr. Zucker, to air their grievances about the network's leadership since his departure. A spokeswoman for Mr. Zucker told The New York Times, "It is wholly unsurprising that Jeff Zucker, the architect of CNN's unprecedented success, would have deep misgivings about the direction the network has taken since he left."

On his call with the staff on Monday, Mr. Licht said he was moving his office to a lower floor, and closed on an optimistic note, harking back to his roots as a TV producer trying to "make shows as good as they can be."

"And that's what I’ll be leaning into alongside of you," Mr. Licht said.

John Koblin covers the television industry. He is the co-author of "It's Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO." @koblin

Benjamin Mullin is a media reporter for The Times, covering the major companies behind news and entertainment. @benmullin


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