Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav announced the departure of CNN CEO Chris Licht on Wednesday after more than a year of controversy at the helm of the network.
Licht was under fire after the release of a Profile of The Atlantic Friday was dubbed disastrous by media critics, raising questions about whether he could continue in his post.
His departure comes at a crucial time for CNN ahead of next year’s presidential election, one of the most important seasons for news organizations.
Last June, just a few months into office, Licht agreed to allow journalist Tim Alberta access to cover his first year at the helm. The final product exposed Licht’s vulnerabilities and the turmoil within CNN, leading many to question his judgment when he even agreed to the article.
Licht apologized to staff and vowed to fight to win back their trust during the channel’s editor’s meeting at 9am Monday.
“CNN is not about me,” he reportedly said. “I shouldn’t be on the news.”
He also announced that he would be moving his office moved to the same floor as the newsroom, apparently in an attempt to appear more accessible to the staff.
But light inevitably became history, and despite his earlier belief that his boss Zaslav had his back, it seemed the signs were already set.
“It didn’t work out for a number of reasons. And that’s my fault,” Zaslav told employees on Wednesday. According to Sara Fischer from Axios.
Licht did not comment on his exit.
Just a day before the Atlantic profile went online, CNN announced that David Leavy, a top lieutenant from Zaslav, would join CNN as chief operating officer.
“The move, which Licht described as his own decision, was indeed a clear sign of the parent company’s waning confidence in Licht’s ability to run a company that has suffered significant ratings declines, revenue losses and reputational damage since its acquisition.” Puck’s Dylan Byers wrote last week.
Leavy will continue to oversee the business side of CNN as Licht will be succeeded during the transition period by a team of experienced CNN executives: Amy Entelis, executive vice president of talent and content development at CNN Worldwide; Virginia Moseley, executive vice president of editorial at CNN US; and Eric Sherling, Executive Vice President of US Programming.
In the run-up to Licht’s departure, concerns about his leadership had been raised by prominent talent including Anderson Cooper, Erin Burnett and Jake Tapper. according to the Wall Street Journal.
In the Words from CNN’s own media reporter Oliver DarcyLight has “lost space”.
The Atlantic Profile
The Atlantic’s 15,000-word article “Inside the Meltdown at CNN,” which contained nagging details about Licht’s tenure, ultimately led to his downfall.
Licht, a former executive producer of CBS’s The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, was hired by Zaslav to run CNN to reshape the program and make it more mainstream, as he lamented that Republicans weren’t wanted to come on the network.
During a media conference in May, Zaslav noted that CNN had managed to win back Republican votes and move away from an “advocacy network.” according to the deadline.
Zaslav’s vision for CNN contrasted with the direction in which former CNN President Jeff Zucker led the network during his nine years at the helm of the organization.
Zucker, who was popular with staff, resigned last year, citing his undisclosed relationship with colleague Allison Gollust, who also eventually left the news organization.
His announcement shocked CNN staff, who had come to appreciate his hands-on approach. Zucker is believed to still be in touch with many people at the network, who call him to get his advice on the state of CNN. according to the New York Times.
As reported by The Atlantic, during his year at the helm of CNN, Licht was preoccupied with critical media coverage of his leadership, which he believed was orchestrated by Zucker himself.
His preoccupation with his predecessor is evident in The Atlantic’s article when Alberta accompanies Licht to the gym.
“Sugar couldn’t do that shit,” Licht told Alberta while raising a metal pole at his trainer’s direction.
But Licht also acknowledged that his biggest mistake was distancing himself from Zucker instead of taking the time to assess what his predecessor did well.
“I really wanted to make a distinction between the old regime and the new regime,” he told The Atlantic. “I should have just slowly come in without making these great announcements about how different I would be.”
In the article, Licht Alberta also shared many of his concerns with CNN, including regarding the news organization’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the beginning it was a trusted source – this crazy thing, nobody understands it, helps us understand it. What’s going on?” he said. “And I think then it got to a point where we were like, ‘Oh wow, we need to keep getting these ratings.’ We need to continue to feel the sense of urgency.’”
Former chief correspondent for the CNN media Brian Stelter reported that many journalists at CNN disagreed with those comments, while Licht has since tried to explain to some that his criticism related to the final stages of the pandemic and was based in part on research commissioned by the network showing that some viewers of CNN distrusted this reporting.
Notably, the only two people who spoke positively about Licht on the record in The Atlantic’s post were Republican pollster Frank Luntz and Licht’s personal trainer Joe Maysonet.
Zaslav, who appeared to be the audience of a light he wanted to please, after several back-and-forths, refused to sit down for an official Alberta interview. He just made a statement – one Alberta didn’t want to include in his post – that wasn’t exactly a clear endorsement of light.
“We’ve set ourselves a high bar and while we know it will take time to complete the important work that’s underway, we have great confidence in the progress Chris and the team are making and share their belief of of the strategy,” read the statement, according to the Washington Post.
The Trump Town Hall
According to The Atlantic, Licht had hoped the town hall meeting he co-organized with former President Donald Trump in New Hampshire last month would help refocus his leadership and “convert his critics into believers.”
“Instead, it turned its few remaining believers into critics. I’ve never seen a drop in trust in any company than the week after CNN’s Town Hall,” Alberta wrote.
During the event, Trump continued to spread untruths about the outcome of the 2020 election; insulted E. Jean Carroll, the woman who won a lawsuit against him for defamation and sexual harassment; and called Kaitlan Collins, the event’s host, a “bad person”.
The event was widely condemned on the network, including by Christiane Amanpour, one of the most respected presenters.
“I would have dropped the mic on ‘bad person,’ but that’s who I am,” she told an audience at Columbia University’s journalism school.
However, Licht defended the call to support Trump. tells his employees He felt the spectacle had been “very good” for the country.
He also reportedly chastised CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy for his critical coverage of the event in the network’s Reliable Sources newsletter.
Light’s programming error
One of Licht’s first programming steps last year was the overhaul of the channel’s morning show. He folded New Day and created CNN This Morning with Don Lemon (who had by then hosted a prime-time show on the network), host Poppy Harlow and then-Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins.
Five months later, Lemon was fired from the network after a series of missteps, including a segment in which he said Republican presidential nominee Nikki Haley was “not in her prime.”
Licht also reassigned Collins to the 9 p.m. presenter chair, which had been vacant since Chris Cuomo was fired in late 2021. Licht had experimented with placing Jake Tapper on the timeslot in the run-up to Midterms 2022, but this never became permanent as the program received poor reviews.
Harlow is the only presenter remaining on the morning show, and they are now joined by a series of rotating co-hosts ahead of a likely overhaul.
Licht had attempted to make other additions to increase the performance of the network. He redesigned the daytime shows and introduced a new, more dynamic format, with presenters moving around the studio instead of sitting behind desks. He started a new one Sunday news magazine entitled “The Whole Story With Anderson Cooper” with coverage from CNN talent and had announced a new weekly show starring Gayle King and Charles Barkley called “King Charles” which is scheduled to premiere in the fall.
CNN’s low ratings and falling profits
Aside from the fact that Licht had little success with his programming measures, he also had to contend with lower ratings and falling profits for the station.
Last year, CNN had a profit of $750 million, a significantly lower number than the $1.25 billion the network recorded in 2021 before Licht’s appointment. according to the New York Times. However, the 2022 number was also impacted by the decision to shut down CNN+, which cost the broadcaster $200 million in “one-time losses.”
CNN’s ad revenue is expected to fall about 5% this year to $562.6 million. diversity reportedciting Kagan, a market research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence.
This, coupled with the network’s poor ratings, which has seen it rank fourth behind Newsmax in some time slots, has contributed to frustration with Light and poor work ethic among employees.
But Zaslav’s efforts to rebuild CNN, an asset that has brought its parent company over a billion in profits in recent years, may not work here.
“Warner Bros. Discovery needs CNN’s cash flow” Variety’s Brian Steinberg wrote Tuesday. “Of course it is difficult to renew a cable network and Zaslav has acquired hard-earned knowledge in the past. But changing CNN is like fixing an airplane while it’s already flying. Everyone can see what’s happening and if management isn’t careful, the whole thing could collapse.”