The Don Lemon Shuffle: How CNN Hopes to Solve 4 Big Problems at Once

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New CNN boss Chris Licht’s latest — and biggest — shakeup of the news network’s lineup signals an attempt to hit two (or three) birds with one stone.

By shifting Don Lemon from his 10 p.m. ET perch after a seven-year run, Licht is eliminating the lowest-rated show in primetime cable news, according to August ratings from Nielsen Media Research — while also quieting critics who have targeted Lemon’s opinionated hosting style. And by tapping Lemon to lead the network’s as-yet-untitled new morning show alongside Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, Licht also aims to give new life to another key part of the schedule that has long lagged behind MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” in viewership.

Lemon, who had become a lightning rod for CNN’s conservative critics for comments like calling Donald Trump a “blatant white supremacist,” will now have a less politics-heavy role leading a morning show that is more in line with Licht’s goal to make the network less partisan on air. And the network retains one of cable’s most visible Black on-air stars — under a new contract whose terms have not been disclosed.

“Primetime cable opinion shows actually are mostly drawing a very white audience,” Claire Potter, professor of history at The New School for Social Research, told TheWrap. As a result, she suspects that CNN executives “don’t actually think they’re going to lose audience by moving Don Lemon out of those out of that [primetime] slot.”

Here are four ways that the Lemon shuffle could impact CNN’s future.

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The network has long faced challenges with its primetime lineup, and Lemon’s show has shown no signs of improvement of late. In fact, viewership for “Don Lemon Tonight” has fallen 42% in the 10 p.m. ET hour year to date, and it’s down 35% in the 11 p.m. hour compared to last year.

For the 10 p.m. hour, CNN averaged just 689,000 viewers, compared to Fox News’ “The Ingram Angle,” which had 2.3 million average viewers, and MSNBC’s “The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell,” which had 1.4 million. In the second hour at 11 p.m., Lemon also came in last place with 539,000 average viewers compared to Fox News’ “Gutfeld,” which averaged 2 million viewers and “The 11th Hour” which got 917,000. However, Lemon beat MSNBC in the advertiser-coveted news demographic of viewers aged 25-54 in both the 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. hour.

MSNBC’s viewership in the time slots also fell across the board since last year, with Lawrence O’Donnell’s show dropping 28% in total viewership and “The 11th Hour” falling 41%. As for Fox News, the network increased viewership, with “The Ingram Angle” rising 2% and “Gutfeld” increasing by a whopping 35%.

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Lemon’s departure now leaves three primetime slots open since the network has yet to name a permanent replacement for Chris Cuomo, another opinion-oriented host who was the network’s biggest ratings draw until he was fired last December following an investigation into his role advising his brother, embattled former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The network has used a rotation of hosts in Cuomo’s old slot at 9 p.m. under the “CNN Tonight” banner, and there’s no immediate sign of how it plans to fill either that hour or the two that Lemon will soon vacate. (Since canceling Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources” last month, the network has aired reruns in that Sunday-morning timeslot.)

“What it says about CNN is that they think the evening solo hosted shows are failing, that they’ve either flatlined in terms of their audience or they are actually losing audience, and that it’s not actually going to cost them any money not to replace that show,” Potter said.

Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow, Kaitlin Collins (CNN)
CNN’s new morning anchors Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins (CNN)

The morning dilemma

Tapping one of the network’s biggest on-air stars to relaunch a new morning show could be just the boost that’s needed for a part of the day that has proven to be a huge profit driver for most networks.

And “New Day” could use a boost. The show, which begins airing at 6 a.m. ET, has seen a 29% drop in viewership so far this year, compared to the same period last year. Year to date, the show has averaged just 414,000 total viewers, lagging well behind MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” (831,000) and Fox News’ perennial ratings champ “Fox and Friends” (1.38 million).

“New Day” is not the only show struggling this year in the post-Trump Biden era. “Morning Joe” dropped 25% in total viewership since last year, while “Fox and Friends” is up 18%. But despite a frequent shuffling of on-air talent, the CNN show has not managed to gain any ratings traction. (Current anchors John Berman and Brianna Keilar, who joined “New Day” just last year, will shift to other roles at CNN later in the year.)

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In May, Licht declared that he wanted to make CNN “a disrupter of the broadcast morning shows in this space” — suggesting he wants to compete more directly with “Morning Joe,” a show Licht co-created in 2007 when he was at MSNBC.

“CNN really sees an opening in the market for another morning show that does serious journalism, as well as the kind of light fair that makes a show like that feel like a national family,” Potter said.

Christina Bellantoni, journalism professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said the news network’s plan for a more serious morning show has some promise. “If you’re going to pick up a cable network, [CNN is] the one that you’re going to probably gravitate to if you’re not interested in entertainment or the lighter fare that you would get from ‘Today’ and ‘Good Morning America.'”

For Potter, a new investment in morning reflects how the network “is searching for a younger audience,” noting that primetime tends to skew much older. “CNN is really trying to bring a younger demographic back to them and back to television news,” Potter said, adding that the network is “trying to figure out what the next iteration of cable is going to be.”

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Signal of the network’s underlying changes

Since Licht took over for Jeff Zucker as president of CNN in May — after the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger was completed — the former “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” producer has made waves with his stated attempts to tone down any displays of partisanship by on-air talent.

Brian Stelter, a frequent critic of broadcast and cable rivals as a media reporter and host of the weekly “Reliable Sources,” was shown the door last month and his show canceled. And prize-winning Washington reporter John Harwood exited earlier this month — attacking former President Donald Trump as a “dishonest demagogue” in his final on-air appearance.

Lemon too has become a lightning rod for conservative critics of the network, including billionaire media mogul John Malone, who happens to be one of Warner Bros. Discovery’s biggest stakeholders. For the record, Malone denied he was involved in Stelter’s ouster, telling The New York Times he wants “the ‘news’ portion of CNN to be more centrist, but [he is not] in control or directly involved.”

Given Licht’s push toward nonpartisanship, it makes sense to steer Lemon away from a role as a primetime pontificator seeking to compete with similar commentary-oriented hosts on Fox News and MSNBC. (On the morning show, Lemon will also be teamed with co-anchors Harlow and Collins, who have a reputation for down-the-middle news coverage.) “Solo-hosted shows are invariably partisan, because they are run by a host, who is known and loved by a particular audience for particular reasons,” Potter said. “I don’t think a host has ever been loved for being neutral.”

The one exception may be “Larry King Live,” a wide-ranging interview show that the suspender-wearing King hosted on CNN from 1985 to 2010.

According to Potter, primetime opinion shows with single hosts are a “relatively recent phenomenon” that picked up in the mid-1990s and 2000s. However, many personality-driven shows that thrived while unpacking the moves of Donald Trump in the White House have faded since Joe Biden entered the White House. “They have been losing audience since Trump left office,” she said, noting there was a “big spike in watching those shows between 2015 and 2020.”

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Keeping Don Lemon on board

Another factor for Licht may have been finding a way to shift Lemon out of his high-profile gig — without actually firing the network’s most prominent Black on-air talent.

And while at least one individual who works at a morning TV show at a rival network said Lemon losing his primetime show is undeniably a “hit to him” that shocked many in the industry, both the network and Lemon himself have been quick to dismiss that idea.

“I was not demoted, none of that,” Lemon said Thursday night on his show. “This is a promotion.”

In the press release announcing the move, Lemon admitted that Licht pitched the idea to him — not the other way around — and Lemon claims he leapt at the chance. “He asked me and I said yes. I could have said no,” Lemon said Thursday night of Licht, whom he called “a morning show impresario” given his role launching Joe Scarborough’s successful morning program. “This is my show. I have a contract for this show. I decided that I would take him up on that and take this journey with him.”

A network rep declined to discuss details of Lemon’s new contract, though an insider insisted that “any noise about a demotion, financially or otherwise, is completely inaccurate.”

“Lemon has showed real versatility,” Bellantoni said. “He can he can do fun features. He can do politics. He’s made clear he’s not afraid to say his opinion… So, I don’t look at it as a demotion.”

Another sign that Lemon is still in the network’s favor: He just landed a plum assignment to cover Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in the U.K.

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