Chris Licht fired at CNN after programming blunders, staff revolt

REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs/File Photo
Chris Licht arrives for the Time 100 Gala in New York, June 8, 2022.

CNN chief executive Chris Licht, who faced growing public criticism and declining staff morale following several programming blunders and his own disparaging comments about the network’s journalism, was fired Wednesday, capping one of the shortest tenures for a CEO at the cable network.

It was a swift fall for the veteran television producer and a blow to stability at one of the largest news organizations in the world. Licht, 51, had barely been on the job for a year. He departed under pressure from his boss and patron, David Zaslav, chief executive of new parent company Warner Bros. Discovery who had charged him with moving CNN toward more centrist reporting and commentary.

A person with knowledge of Zaslav’s thinking said he lost confidence in Licht over time, following a series of missteps and “self-inflicted wounds.”

Licht had triggered negative headlines and internal backlash last month for his decision to broadcast a live “town hall” featuring Donald Trump that reeled out of control as the former president’s falsehoods and insults drew cheers from an audience stacked with GOP fans. Yet he was also struggling with the larger problem of failing to turn around CNN’s cratering ratings. His most high-profile programming decision – a revamped morning show – was a ratings disaster that culminated with the firing of longtime anchor Don Lemon.

A new chief operating officer installed at CNN last week set out to ask the company’s top journalists what they viewed as CNN’s biggest problems. Many pointed to Licht’s management.

Internal support for Licht eroded even further after the Atlantic published a roughly 15,000-word profile last week for which Licht gave extensive access to reporter Tim Alberta. It quoted him criticizing CNN’s coverage of the pandemic, which he seemed to see as overhyped: “It got to a place where, ‘Oh wow, we gotta keep getting those ratings. We gotta keep getting the sense of urgency.'” It also described him making questionable choices about the staging of the Trump town hall.

Licht apologized to his staff, both in a newsroom meeting Monday, where he pledged to work to regain their trust, and over the next two days in individual conversations with the network’s prominent journalists.

But by then the damage was done. Zaslav told CNN staff Wednesday morning that the company is searching “internally and externally” for a new leader. In the interim, CNN will be led by a team of longtime network executives – Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley and Eric Sherling – as well as David Leavy, the Discovery veteran named as CNN’s chief operating officer last week.

“I have great respect for Chris, personally and professionally,” Zaslav said in a statement. “The job of leading CNN was never going to be easy, especially at a time of huge disruption and transformation, and he has poured his heart and soul into it.”

In a statement Wednesday, Licht described his time at CNN as “an exciting but incredibly challenging assignment.”

“I learned a lot over the past 13 months,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to have had a successful, fulfilling career and I look forward to my next chapter.”

The turbulence at the top of CNN comes as television news networks struggle to devise a strategy to deal with the decline of their traditional cable business at a time when streaming services have chipped away at their ratings and revenue. Years of cord-cutting have shrunk the number of households receiving cable and satellite services – translating to a decline in fees networks collect from cable operators.

Licht was hired last year to replace Jeff Zucker, who had led CNN through the tumultuous Trump years but was forced to resign after failing to disclose to the company a romantic relationship with a fellow executive.

Then an executive at CBS, Licht had made his name as a master programmer, helping shape the late-night talk show hosted by Stephen Colbert and overseeing a successful overhaul of CBS’s morning show. He also helped launch MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” while at NBC.

He was one of Zaslav’s first major hires when the longtime Discovery CEO took over as head of the new conglomerate formed by the April 2022 merger with CNN’s old parent company, WarnerMedia, and Discovery Inc., the owner of multiple cable networks.

Zaslav hired Licht – who had never overseen a staff anywhere near as large as CNN’s – without interviewing other candidates, according to a person with knowledge of the matter but not authorized to comment.

Named as the new CNN CEO at the end of February 2022, Licht had the unpleasant task of announcing Warner Bros. Discovery’s shuttering of CNN Plus, the company’s month-old $100 million streaming service, before he had even officially started the job.

In his new role, Licht inherited a staff still mostly loyal to Zucker, who had helped grow the careers of many prominent on-air stars and awarded generous contracts. He was also aligned with Zaslav in his mission of making the network a more palatable forum for conservatives, which was underscored when he made a point of booking more Republican guests in an effort to recast the network as a centrist forum.

Licht sent ripples of concern through the newsroom when he subsequently fired prominent journalists John Harwood and Brian Stelter, which many saw as a signal that the new CNN would abandon the hard-charging and frequently opinionated tone of the Zucker years. Licht also oversaw a round of deep layoffs that sapped staff morale and hurt his credibility with employees.

He achieved few tangible successes during his year at CNN as ratings reached historic lows, trailing competitors who themselves were grappling with an overall decline in cable-news viewership as the frenetic coverage of the Trump White House gave way to the quieter Biden era. In 2022, CNN’s average ratings declined by one-third from the previous year, averaging 735,000 throughout the day; by comparison, Fox News saw a dip of 14 percent and MSNBC declined by 22 percent. On some nights, upstart right-wing network Newsmax beat CNN in ratings.

Last fall, Licht launched a new morning show – his first big swing at remaking the CNN schedule – that paired veteran journalists Lemon and Poppy Harlow with Kaitlan Collins. The trio “have a genuine camaraderie that will translate perfectly to a morning show” Licht told The Washington Post at the time. But the experiment fell flat after Lemon attracted controversy for on-air comments about women in sports and politics. Lemon was fired by the network in April.

Licht was slow to fill the 9 p.m. slot on the network – traditionally one of the most-watched hours on television, but which CNN had left without a permanent host since the firing of Chris Cuomo in December 2021. Last month, he announced that Collins will take that role.

Speculation about Licht’s tenure had long been simmering. In February, the network’s corporate parent company began a search for a chief operating officer to help Licht run the business side of things, a move seen as an attempt to bolster oversight at the network.

Leavy, the Zaslav ally appointed to the role, launched a listening tour last week, having candid conversations with top CNN journalists about Licht and what wasn’t working at the company. According to one anchor who talked to him, staffers raised concerns that the move to appeal to more conservative viewers – both in practice and the way it has been publicly presented – had hurt CNN’s reputation and staff morale.

Leavy also heard from staffers who told him that CNN’s news coverage – the one element directly under Licht’s purview – was suffering, this person said.

And many have been frustrated by the way a series of headline-grabbing, high-level managerial crises over the past 18 months – including the forced departures of Zucker and Cuomo, and the shuttering of CNN Plus – have deflected attention from their work.

“I want to talk about our journalism,” anchor Jake Tapper said Wednesday afternoon. “I want the coverage of CNN to be on our journalism.”

CNN staffers were stunned by the swiftness of Licht’s firing, though several saw it as cause for celebration. “Everybody is relieved, and downright happy about this,” said one staffer.

“Can you hear the Champagne popping?” an on-air journalist said.

But that same journalist – who like most CNN staffers spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve work relationships – also expressed concern. “We’re once again in this period of massive uncertainty and now we’re headed into a campaign cycle and everybody’s looking at each other and wondering, what do we do now?”

Some, though, anticipate a period of stability with few changes. “The interim group knows CNN better than anyone,” one on-air personality said.

In his meeting with CNN staff Wednesday, Zaslav was vague about why Licht was ousted.

“For a number of reasons, things didn’t work out. And that’s unfortunate. It’s really unfortunate,” Zaslav told staff. “And ultimately, that’s on me. And I take full responsibility for that. But now we begin a new page.” He also reiterated his support of CNN’s journalism and vowed to make CNN “the best version of a global contemporary news organization in the world.”

Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who is now at George Washington University, speculated that Licht may not have had the requisite journalism and management experience necessary to run an international “colossus” like CNN.

But he acknowledged the inherent challenges of the job, including the intense level of scrutiny CNN receives and the larger changes wracking the cable-TV business. “It’s a very, very difficult place to make a mistake,” Sesno said. “You don’t have the space to learn on the job.”