Under Chris Licht, CNN to Dull Its Liberal Edge

From a story on axios.com by Mike Allen and Sara Fischer headlined “CNN to dull its liberal edge”:

Under new chief Chris Licht, CNN will dial down the prime-time partisanship and double down on the network’s news-gathering muscle, top sources tell me.

Why it matters: Ratings are secondary to credibility, in the view of Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who’s taking over CNN.

Jeff Zucker’s successor at the CNN helm will be Licht — showrunner of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and a popular, pioneering producer who knows his way around America’s top control rooms.

  • The selection of Licht, a regular at Zaslav summer parties in the Hamptons, was reported first by Puck News’ Dylan Byers. Licht will be named next week.
  • Licht — CBS’ EVP of Special Programming — succeeded with three very different programs: Colbert rose on his watch to become the most-watched network late-night show, with live shows for big news … “CBS This Morning” got a ratings jolt when he was E.P. … and he was co-creator and original E.P. of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

What’s happening: Zaslav, at the urging of mentor John Malone, is likely to push CNN back to hard news, and away from red-hot liberal opining.

  • Taking on a second hallmark of the Zucker regime, the incoming Discovery team has expressed skepticism about the roster size for CNN+, the streaming service Zucker had been stocking with expensive talent.

Between the lines: Axios is told that Licht and Zaslav share a view that CNN was chasing prime-time ratings at the expense of the brand.

  • Zaslav wants to move CNN back to the middle.
  • CNN at all hours will emphasize the type of indispensable coverage we’ve been seeing from Ukraine — a deployment built on Zucker’s flood-the-zone, own-the story playbook, and hires including Clarissa Ward.
  • CNN’s footprint includes 11 U.S. bureaus and 28 internationally. Zucker invested heavily in CNN Digital, which boasts 200 million unique visitors globally each month.

The intrigue: Zucker ran an empire of 4,500 (not counting Turner Sports, which he also headed). But Licht’s domain may be smaller:

  • Staff is bracing for CNN+ to shrink before it even launches this spring.
  • Executives have discussed moving HLN, formerly Headline News, under the purview of a current Discovery executive, Kathleen Finch.
  • A separate executive will head sports.

Go deeper: Sara Fischer on LichtLicht’s bio.
Also see the New York Times story by Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin headlined “Chris Licht, a Creator of ‘Morning Joe’ and ‘Colbert’ Producer, Is Set to Run CNN.” The opening grafs:

Chris Licht, a veteran television producer who helped create “Morning Joe” at MSNBC and later successfully retooled morning and late-night programming at CBS, is set to be the next leader of CNN, according to three people with direct knowledge of the decision.

Mr. Licht, 50, who is currently the executive producer of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” is poised to succeed Jeff Zucker, the CNN president whose nine-year tenure abruptly ended this month when he resigned over an undisclosed romantic relationship with a colleague.

He is expected to join the network once its parent company, WarnerMedia, completes a merger with Discovery Inc., a deal that could close by April. Mr. Licht and David Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery, are professional and social friends who have known each other for more than a decade.

Discussions between Mr. Licht and Mr. Zaslav began shortly after Mr. Zucker’s departure, and accelerated over the past two weeks, one of the people said. A formal announcement is expected as soon as this coming week. Puck first reported the news of Mr. Licht’s selection.

Overseeing CNN — a sprawling news organization with a worldwide footprint, thousands of employees and hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue — would be by far the biggest undertaking of Mr. Licht’s career in television. And he is joining the network at a time of turmoil.

Its newsroom was roiled by the stunning exit of Mr. Zucker, who commanded deep loyalty among anchors and correspondents. Its prime-time and morning ratings have been mired in third place behind rivals Fox News and MSNBC. And the looming takeover by Discovery has raised questions about the future direction of the network….
And the Wall Street Journal story by Joe Flint and Benjamin Mullin headlined “Discovery to Name Chris Licht to Run CNN.” The opening grafs:

Discovery Inc. has tapped producer Chris Licht to lead CNN after it takes over the cable-news channel, according to people familiar with the matter, turning to a veteran news and late-night TV showrunner to steady a network roiled by the sudden departure of its long-serving president.

An announcement of Mr. Licht’s appointment as CNN president is expected next week, some of the people said. Mr. Licht isn’t expected to start at the network until after the completion of the merger of CNN parent WarnerMedia and Discovery, which is expected to happen in the second quarter.

Mr. Licht, who is currently executive producer of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on Paramount Global’s CBS network, has also been the executive producer of “CBS This Morning” as well as MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

The pending appointment of Mr. Licht comes during a pivotal period for CNN, which is grappling with declining ratings and is preparing to jump into the streaming wars with a new subscription service, CNN+, as the Discovery deal nears its close. The network is also reeling from the recent departures of CNN President Jeff Zucker, Chief Marketing Officer Allison Gollust and prime-time anchor Chris Cuomo.

Mr. Licht will have a smaller role than Mr. Zucker, who beyond his role as CNN president also oversaw sports for WarnerMedia, some of the people said. When he starts, Mr. Licht will have latitude to make significant changes at CNN, including its business strategy, programming and digital offerings, one of the people said. One area of focus will likely be sizing up the network’s mix of political coverage, investigative reporting and breaking news and deciding whether it needs to be changed, the person said.

The decision to hire Mr. Licht is one of the first major personnel moves made by Discovery ahead of its combination with WarnerMedia, currently a unit of AT&T Inc. Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav, who will run the combined company—to be named Warner Bros. Discovery—has said little publicly about his plans for CNN but praised the network’s coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war on an earnings conference call earlier this week.

While Mr. Licht has strong producing chops, he has never run an enterprise as big as CNN, which has thousands of employees and whose operations span the globe.

CNN is readying a paid subscription service, CNN+, which aims to give the network a beachhead in the video-streaming wars. CNN has spent big to lure prominent journalists, including former “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace and Audie Cornish, the former co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” The service will include offerings from some of CNN’s biggest anchors, including “State of the Union” co-host Jake Tapper, “The Situation Room” host Wolf Blitzer and “Don Lemon Tonight” anchor Don Lemon.

CNN’s ratings have fallen dramatically following the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, and the network has struggled to recover against rivals MSNBC and Fox News. The network’s ratings tend to improve relative to competitors during major breaking news events such as the recent Russia-Ukraine war….

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