CNN CEO Chris Licht will step down from his position after a little over a year, following a loss of support from staff and the implementation of chaotic editorial changes directed by parent company Warner Bros. Discovery. David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, informed Licht of the decision during CNN’s regular editorial call. A team of three executives will temporarily oversee CNN’s editorial operations: Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, and Eric Sherling. David Leavy, recently appointed chief operating officer, will handle business activities. Kris Coratti Kelly, responsible for CNN’s communications, will be departing.
The duration of the interim arrangement is uncertain, as Zaslav stated that there is no rush to appoint a new CEO. Entelis is seen as a potential internal candidate for the top news position, although her compatibility with Zaslav may be in question due to her inclination to challenge his directions if she believes they are not in CNN’s best interest.
Zaslav expressed respect for Licht and acknowledged the difficulties of leading CNN during a time of disruption and transformation. He expressed confidence in the current team and their commitment to CNN’s renowned journalism.
Licht’s tenure at CNN was marked by disorder, with anchors being shifted to align with the new mission set by Warner Bros. Discovery, which aimed to reduce the network’s crusading tone exhibited during its coverage of the Trump administration under Jeff Zucker’s leadership. However, the changes were implemented in a confrontational manner, demanding more from staff while cutting costs, discontinuing initiatives like CNN+, and reducing the number of journalists. Licht faced difficulties in building rapport with the staff, who had strong ties to Zucker. Troubles mounted after hosting a live town hall with former President Trump and relocating provocative primetime anchor Don Lemon to a morning program where conflicts with co-anchors arose. Lemon was subsequently removed in April. These issues contributed to a decline in viewership, with projected ad revenue for 2023 estimated to decrease by about 5%.
Warner Bros. Discovery faces a time constraint in devising a viable strategy for CNN, especially with the upcoming 2024 presidential election, known for drawing larger audiences, generating higher ratings, and attracting new sponsorships. Cable networks currently face diminishing returns as viewers increasingly turn to streaming platforms for personalized primetime content. Advertisers have also grown apprehensive about supporting news programming due to audience polarization and the potential for social media backlash.
Inside CNN, there is weariness among staffers regarding the drama that unfolded during Licht’s tenure. Some attribute CNN’s challenges in ratings, staffing decisions, and programming blunders to Licht and Warner Bros. Discovery, believing that Licht was excessively micromanaged by Zaslav. The network’s transformation has been likened to a revamp of unscripted channels rather than recognizing the unique nature and value of journalism.
Licht’s appointment at CNN generated considerable interest due to his successful track record as a TV executive, including his contributions to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” CBS’ revamped “CBS This Morning,” and CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” However, doubts persisted regarding his ability to transition from overseeing TV programs to managing a vast enterprise like CNN, which rivals the scope of the BBC and NBCUniversal’s news holdings.
Licht joined CNN during a tumultuous period following Zucker’s departure due to a disclosed romantic relationship with a former chief marketing officer. The network has faced scrutiny as it transitioned from Time Warner to AT&T and now Warner Bros. Discovery, while also being criticized by former President Trump.
Licht’s appointment aimed to restore stability, but instead, it exacerbated the state of disruption. Further changes to CNN’s editorial operations are expected as the news organization seeks to regain its footing ahead of the 2024 presidential race.