CNN Needs a New Leader after Chris Licht. Will Anyone Want the Job?

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

For the second time in just over 15 months, David Zaslav is on the hunt for someone to take on one of the biggest jobs in media – the head of CNN. This search might be harder than the first.

The first time around, the Warner Bros. Discovery chief executive gravitated quickly to a veteran TV programmer with a varied and intriguing résumé. Chris Licht had resuscitated CBS’s lagging morning show, caught lightning in a bottle with MSNBC’s political chat show “Morning Joe” and even excelled at producing Stephen Colbert’s late-night comedy show. Zaslav hired him in April 2022 without interviewing anyone else.

But after Licht’s abrupt dismissal last week, it’s understood that Zaslav will probably do a lot more interviewing. Not only to find someone with the managerial magic to run a 4,000-person global news operation – but to persuade one of the few qualified people to want the job.

“The job of running a 24-hour news organization, at the best of times, is like walking into a category 3 hurricane,” said Jon Klein, who ran CNN in the U.S. from 2004 to 2010.

And this is not the best of times for CNN.

The network’s next leader will have to captain a crew of wary and frustrated employees at a time of severe financial pressure for the company and the broader television industry. Warner Bros. Discovery was saddled with debt as part of the merger that formed it last year, a figure that sits at $49.5 billion. The company is feeling the brunt of industry-wide declines in advertising and revenue from cable TV subscriptions, which has weighed down CNN’s bottom line, though the network is still heavily profitable.

Considering all the structural and management challenges at play, the list of potential candidates who check all the boxes “is very, very small,” said an industry executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

“It’s not a pretty management picture,” Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief, said.

Meanwhile, the circumstances of Licht’s departure – after a ratings decline and programming blunders that left staff demoralized – could scare off some contenders. While Licht maintained throughout his tenure that he made his own decisions and was not simply doing Zaslav’s bidding, his firing this week made clear that he served at the pleasure of the man who picked him.

“Whoever is picked, the major question will be: How much power will they have to push back on Zaslav?” asked a CNN veteran who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. The industry executive, who has close knowledge of CNN, said that “anybody who is good is going to demand that they have the authority to run the business.”

In the interim, CNN will be run by three longtime programming executives – Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley and Eric Sherling – and a business-side exec, David C. Leavy, a Discovery veteran who was named chief operating officer of CNN less than two weeks ago and was immediately tasked to serve as a sounding board for the network’s frustrated journalists.

No matter how qualified the candidate, the next leader of CNN will struggle against the larger pressures building against the entire cable-television industry. CNN’s overall ratings have slumped badly, losing just over one-third of its viewers on average during 2022, a phenomenon that some observers say reflects consumers’ declining appetite for news after the boom years of the frenetic Trump era.

And yet many of Warner Bros. Discovery’s other cable networks – including HGTV and Animal Planet – have also experienced slumping ratings. Viewers have been canceling their cable and satellite subscriptions for years, and the trend is accelerating. While network executives are scrambling to compensate for their declining television business by building up their streaming offerings, Warner Bros. Discovery shuttered CNN’s $100 million streaming service after barely a month last year.

Analysts note, though, that Warner Bros. Discovery’s media properties – including CNN – still generate plenty of cash that can pay down the parent company’s debts. Meanwhile, the company’s big bet on streaming, Max, is showing declining losses from its predecessors, Discovery+ and HBO Max, which gives Zaslav some financial flexibility.

“CNN is going to have to get as much profitability out of their current cable and digital focused business as they can while simultaneously developing an efficient streaming strategy,” said Klein, who runs the streaming sports platform HANG. “The next leader of CNN needs to have a foot in both worlds, journalism and technology.”

And former CBS News president Andrew Heyward warned against the idea that CNN is a damaged property in dire need of an overhaul. A senior adviser at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, he has argued that TV news networks should divvy up oversight among multiple bosses.

“The idea that we need a charismatic figure, a colossus striding across the landscape, I’m not sure that’s particularly helpful to the news organization as opposed to actually addressing these challenges,” he said.

Of the interim leaders, Entelis, 71, has the longest track record, close relationships with the network’s most prominent journalists and a reputation as a taste-making savant. Under her leadership as executive vice president for talent and content development, CNN became known as not just a cable news network but a purveyor of high-quality nonfiction programming. In March, her unit won CNN its first Academy Award for the 2022 documentary “Navalny.”

But last October, Entelis’s influence was curbed when Licht announced that CNN would stop acquiring films like “Navalny” and cut back on high-priced but popular shows, like the travel program “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” which was canceled. And CNN insiders also say she lacks some of the daily journalism and news programming chops that might be necessary to run the network on a permanent basis – if, in fact, she would even want the job. “She’s a television person. She’s not a news person,” the CNN veteran said.

Still, the network is in need of stability, and that might come from a familiar face, whether Entelis, Moseley or Sherling. A veteran of ABC News, Moseley is CNN’s executive vice president of editorial, overseeing all domestic newsgathering – “a great editorial person, a great show person,” in the words of a friend who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss top executives. Sherling, meanwhile, oversees all live programming, special projects and live events programming.

In a memo to employees on Thursday, the interim leaders laid out their mission: “to remove the barriers and distractions that have made your jobs harder, refocus on the unparalleled work you are producing every day, and offer open and regular lines of communication to ensure that you feel invested and engaged in our path forward.”

More than anything, the executives will be charged with calming the troops and getting the buy-in of the network’s most prominent anchors, who had privately voiced their frustrations with Licht’s leadership in the days before his ouster. One of those anchors, Jake Tapper, told The Washington Post that he wants to return focus to the network’s journalistic mission.

Jay Sures, the vice chairman of the United Talent Agency, represents many of CNN’s top anchors, including Tapper – the ones that the next leader of the network will need to keep happy.

“What CNN needs now is a calming presence, a statesperson, somebody that the talent trusts who will put journalism first, ahead of everything,” Sures said.