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Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Chris Licht Is Out at CNN, Ending a Brief and Chaotic Run - The New York Times

Chris Licht Is Out at CNN, Ending a Brief and Chaotic Run

"Mr. Licht’s turbulent time running the network lasted slightly more than a year.

CNN’s ratings plummeted during Chris Licht’s time as chief executive of the network.
Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Chris Licht, the former television producer who oversaw a brief and chaotic run as the chairman of CNN, is out at the network.

David Zaslav, the chief executive of CNN’s parent, Warner Bros. Discovery, informed staff on Wednesday morning that he had met with Mr. Licht and that he was leaving, effective immediately.

Mr. Licht’s 13-month run at CNN was marked by one controversy after another. He got off to a bumpy start even before he had officially started when he oversaw the shuttering of the costly CNN+ streaming service at the request of its network’s new owners, who were skeptical about a stand-alone digital product. The cuts resulted in scores of layoffs.

“For a number of reasons things didn’t work out, and that’s unfortunate,” Mr. Zaslav said, according to a recording of his remarks. “It’s really unfortunate, and ultimately that’s on me. And I take full responsibility for that.”

“This job was never going to be easy, especially at a time of great disruption and transformation,” he continued. “Chris poured his heart and soul into this job. Like all of you, he was in the line of fire and he’s taken a lot of hits. We appreciate his efforts, his passion, his love for journalism, and his love for this business.”

Mr. Zaslav said that an interim group of leaders — the CNN veterans Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley and Eric Sherling, as well as the newly appointed chief operating officer, David Leavy — would take over before a permanent leader was installed. He said the process could take several months.

Mr. Licht’s departure represents a dramatic fall not long after he departed as an executive producer of Stephen Colbert’s top-rated late night show and vowed to bring a middle-of-the-road balance to CNN’s journalism. When Mr. Licht took the job, he told friends it was a “calling.”

The job would prove much more difficult. Ratings plummeted during Mr. Licht’s management and a series of programming miscues — including an ill-fated morning show co-anchored by Don Lemon, as well as organizing a town hall featuring former President Donald J. Trump that was subject to withering criticism — did little to shore up support with his colleagues.

Things deteriorated last week when The Atlantic published a 15,000-word profile extensively documenting Mr. Licht’s stormy tenure, including criticism of the network’s pandemic coverage that rankled the network’s rank-and-file.

Further worsening matters was CNN’s financial performance. The network generated $750 million in profit last year, including one-time losses from the CNN+ streaming service, down from $1.25 billion the year before. 

Mr. Licht’s abrupt departure represents the latest hit in a tumultuous era for the network.

In December 2021, the prime-time anchor Chris Cuomo was fired amid an ethics scandal involving his brother, the former Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. Two months later, the network’s longtime chief executive, Jeff Zucker, was let go for failing to disclose a relationship with a colleague, the senior executive Allison Gollust, who was likewise pushed out within weeks of Mr. Zucker’s departure.

It did not help matters for Mr. Licht that Mr. Zucker enjoyed wide loyalty from top anchors as well as rank-and-file workers, even after his exit. Once employees began souring on Mr. Licht, Mr. Zucker turned into a quasi-grievance switchboardfor frustrated staff members.

One of Mr. Licht’s first big programming moves was to reassign Mr. Lemon from his prime-time perch to a new morning show. Mr. Licht said the show, which Mr. Lemon would anchor with Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, would “set the tone for the news organization.”

Instead, “CNN This Morning,” which debuted in November, was marred by low ratings and tensions on and off the set. Two months after Mr. Lemon said that a woman over the age of 50 was not “in her prime,” he was fired, effectively blowing up the show that had been Mr. Licht’s signature project.

That was not the only misstep. Mr. Licht took his time — Warner Bros. Discovery executives believed far too much time — to figure out a prime-time lineup as it was rapidly losing viewers. To the shock of many CNN staff members, the network began last month to occasionally lose to Newsmax in total viewers in prime time. And the Trump town hall, which aired on May 10, was excoriated both outside and within CNN.

Just last week, Mr. Zaslav installed Mr. Leavy, a trusted lieutenant, as the network’s chief operating officer, a move that suggested he believed Mr. Licht needed urgent management help.

On Monday, after The Atlantic published its devastating story, Mr. Licht addressed the CNN staff and said he would “fight like hell” to earn back their trust.

He never got that chance.

Mr. Zaslav has turned to longtime CNN veterans to steady the ship. Ms. Entelis, executive vice president for talent and content development, has been at CNN for more than a decade and anointed some of the network’s biggest stars during her long tenure. She won plaudits earlier this year when “Navalny,” a documentary about the Russian dissident Alexei Navalny she shepherded at CNN, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Ms. Moseley is also a CNN stalwart, having joined the network more than a decade ago as the network’s deputy Washington bureau chief. She has risen quickly since then, last year being promoted to vice president of editorial for the network’s U.S. operations.

Eric Sherling, CNN’s executive vice president of U.S. programming, has also been at the network for more than a decade. In his current role, he oversees live programs for CNN’s U.S. operations, including mornings and prime time.

Puck earlier reported that Mr. Licht was leaving CNN.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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"

Chris Licht Is Out at CNN, Ending a Brief and Chaotic Run - The New York Times

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