CEO Chris Licht’s plan to take CNN back to its newsy roots has support from the Warner Bros. Discovery board, but the top-down approach has higher ups in the newsroom worried about their editorial independence.
Speaking with the Financial Times, Licht said he aims to bring journalism front-and-center, tamping down the amount of opinion talk that grew on the network during the Trump years. He has a vision to make the OG all-news cable station seem “more like a newspaper,” with less emphasis on politics and more on breaking news, lifestyle and sports content “in the hope it might keep viewers glued, even on slow days.”
The CEO, who took over for Jeff Zucker in May, believes that the network’s offerings needed to be toned down.
“If everything is a crisis, if everything is 11, if everything is breaking news, then no one listens when there actually is a crisis,” he told the FT. “When you say, ‘No, no — really — the house is on fire now.’”
But that doesn’t mean that CNN will have no viewpoint.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about my vision is that I want to be vanilla, that I want to be centrist. That is bulls—,” Licht told the FT. “You have to be compelling. You have to have edge. In many cases you take a side. Sometimes you just point out uncomfortable questions. But either way you don’t see it through a lens of left or right.”
CNN desperately needs a turnaround, evidenced by its dismal ratings on election night, when it fell behind MSNBC for the first time. MSNBC drew 3.2 million viewers to CNN’s 2.6 million. Together, they still fell short of Fox News’s 7.4 million. Revenue, ad sales and profit are all down, while costs are rising.
“I hate to say it but when I look ahead, I see problems without end,” one CNN executive told the FT.
The company is expected to lay off potentially hundreds of CNN staffers by year’s end amid major cuts that aim to trim costs by $100 million. New parent Warner Bros. Discovery is carrying $47.5 billion in debt, the FT noted, as it is “under investor pressure to cut billions of dollars in expenses through a restructuring.” CEO David Zaslev is overhauling not just CNN but also multiple other units within the media giant formed in April.
The FT noted, though, that CNN is still generating significant amounts of cash, with profit for the year estimated to come in around $700 million to $750 million, citing three people familiar with the accounts. But that is almost half a billion dollars down on CNN’s peak profitability under Zucker, who steered the network to its more opinion-heavy lineup.
The Warner Bros. Discovery board is focused on the long term, according to the FT, with rebuilding the CNN brand that they believe is “tarnished by left-leaning advocacy” a key to the future.
But the report showed there is still some loyalty for Zucker, disgruntled CNN executives are still worried about editorial independence. Attempting to remove partisanship and discord in the current climate may prove futile, in their view.
“I never remember a single advertiser complaining that the talent was too opinionated,” one executive told the FT. “Look, there is no audience in the middle. It doesn’t exist. It’s a mirage.”