CNN Gets (Another) New Leader, Mark Thompson, in Twisty Warner Tenure

CNN has yet another new top executive.

Warner Bros. Discovery on Wednesday named Mark Thompson, the former New York Times Co. and BBC leader who has demonstrated a knack for guiding media into digital realms, as the latest executive to oversee CNN, putting in place the fifth command structure around the news giant since early 2022. He will report to Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav and start October 9.

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Thompson’s name surfaced just a few days ago as someone who might be “in the mix” to run CNN, which has been under the aegis of four senior executives since the June ouster of Chris Licht, a popular TV producer whose tenure at the network was marred by a series of personnel moves that failed to gain ratings traction. His arrival is surprising to many insiders who believed CNN’s parent company was willing to let a quartet of senior executives — Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, Eric Sherling, all CNN veterans, and David Leavy, a longtime consigliere of Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who was brought in to handle business affairs — steer the ship for the time being. Now, the four will report to Thompson.

Thompson was first suggested as a candidate by Semafor, and Puck News on Tuesday night reported he was expected to be named head of CNN operations.

In Thompson, Warner Bros. Discovery no doubt hopes it has found someone who can stick around for at least a little while. CNN and its rivals are entering the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, typically a time that brings with it broader audiences, bigger ratings and the attendant ad dollars that often follow such elements. CNN has been grappling with ratings shortfalls for months, and few moves made by anyone at the outlet have reversed that condition.

“The world needs accurate trustworthy news now more than ever and we’ve never had more ways of meeting that need at home and abroad. Where others see disruption, I see opportunity,” Thompson said in a statement “I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and get down to work with my new colleagues to build a successful future for CNN.”

His ascension may rattle anew CNN’s employee base, who have watched a quick succession of senior teams try to right the ship since the ouster of Jeff Zucker, CNN’s former leader. Zucker presided over an era of big profits and big profiles by encouraging anchors and correspondents to take on a more crusading demeanor on air, particularly during the Trump administration. But Zucker was ousted in the waning days of AT&T’s ownership of CNN’s corporate parent, WarnerMedia, after acknowledging a romantic relationship with the news company’s chief marketing officer, Allison Gollust.

Since that time, CNN has been under interim leadership twice and was managed for a year and a few months by Licht, whose tenure included significant staff layoffs and a ill-advised move of evening host Don Lemon to mornings. The most recent senior team has helped to stabilize CNN: overhauling the weekday and weekend schedule, and making new moves to get CNN back into streaming with a new live-stream for Max, the parent company’s broadband hub. A previous effort, the standalone CNN+, was scuttled by Warner Bros. Discovery within days of the merger that created it.

It is unclear if Thompson will be any more successful than his predecessors. CNN is projected to see its subscriber base drop in 2024 to 66.3 million from 70.3 million in 2023, according to data from Kagan, a market-research unit of S&P Global Intelligence. Revenue from its cable and satellite distributors is seen falling to $1.032 billion, compared with $1.048 billion in 2023. Advertising revenue, however, is expected to be buoyed by the 2024 presidential election, and increase to $576.1 million, compared with $562.6 million in 2023.

At New York Times Co., Thompson emphasized digital subscriptions as a chief means of generating revenue, helping the company winnow down its strong dependence on print advertising. At his start, in the fourth quarter of 2012, the Times’ digital-only subscriptions stood at 640,000. By the second quarter of 2020, they came to 5.67 million. During his tenure, Times Co. launched a vertical devoted to cooking; acquired the product-recommendations outlet Wirecutter; and moved more decisively into TV projects, working with FX, Amazon Prime Video and Netflix.

Little of that seemed to assure CNN’s employees. Staffers on Tuesday were buffeted internally by rumors about whether Thompson might bring in his own senior executive staff, and speculation about the four senior executives currently at the helm. They will likely have more questions in days to come.

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