Kasie Hunt left a fast-track career at NBC News in 2021 to dip her toes into digital waters at CNN. Two years later, she’s just starting to find out whether she might sink or swim.
On Wednesday, Hunt will launch “State of the Race,” a new hour-long weekday show for CNN’s international service focused on U.S. politics and the 2024 election. “It won’t be any less sophisticated than what my most specific viewers in Washington are hearing, the ones who are my sources,” she says. Expect to hear from people who know how political campaigns work and why candidates make the decisions they do. Could the program show up for U.S. audiences on CNN Max, the new live-streaming service set to debut the same day? .There is a strong expectation within CNN that the new product will feature several hours of CNNI. “That question is above my pay grade,” says Hunt.
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“Race” starts just after CNN awarded Hunt another heady assignment, anchoring “Early Start,” the 5 a.m. hour that kicks off its weekday schedule in the U.S. Hunt has big plans, including segments devoted to international reporting and sports; a “restart” segment at 5:30 a.m. for viewers tuning in a little later; and a new name for the show which will be unveiled in days to come.
The new roles will have Hunt waking up in the wee hours of the morning Monday through Friday, then hanging around to lead her second program at 11 a.m. eastern. “It’s a lot, but honestly, I’m not scared of hard work,” says Hunt, 38 years old. “I was working Capitol Hill. Long days are the feature, not the bug.”
These weren’t necessarily the jobs Hunt saw for herself on July 16, 2021, when she announced in the final minutes of “Way Too Early,” the MSNBC program she anchored ahead of “Morning Joe,” that she was off to “my new adventure.” She says she had the blessing of her mentor, “Morning Joe” co-anchor Mika Brzezinski (MSNBC did not make Brzezinski available for comment). At the time, CNN was hiring dozens of personnel to launch CNN+, a new subscription-based streaming service, and Hunt was the first to be named. News of her hire, which leaked before CNN was prepared to announce it, had the entire news industry revved about the possibilities of streaming. CNN launched the hub in late March of 2022.
Weeks later, it was gone. Warner Bros. Discovery, a new corporate owner of CNN, had taken over in the interim and decided CNN+ was too expensive and not part of its overall plan to reach massive streaming audiences. Gone were new programs launched for Hunt, Brian Stelter, Kate Bolduan and others. CNN had also struck deals with Jemele Hill and business professor Scott Galloway. The site’s shuttering was so abrupt that some talent negotiations hadn’t even been revealed. CNN had held talks, for example, with Dan B. Harris, the former ABC News anchor, about a program based on his wellness podcast “10% Happier,” according to two people familiar with the matter. Harris could not be reached for comment.
And yet, CNN had to find new ways to utilize Hunt and others it had hired, including prominent names like Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace and NPR’s Audie Cornish. Like Hunt, both remain with CNN, and with good reason. The contracts the network struck with the journalists require the outlet to pay them no matter what, according to people familiar with the agreements — even if there was no obvious place for them on the schedule.
“I don’t regret for a second taking a risk and moving into streaming,” says Hunt. “Everyone knows the industry is changing. I was really excited to take a chance and be part of something fun. Nobody could have predicted ultimately what happened with CNN+.”
Hunt’s journey is one faced by any number of TV-news personnel. Many major U.S. media companies are trying to devise new business models that involve live-streaming content to broadband and mobile viewers. About half of Americans surveyed by Pew Research in 2022 said they preferred a digital device when it comes to getting news, more than the 33% who said they preferred TV. CNN’s mainstay cable network is expected to shed subscribers in months to come, according to estimates from Kagan, a market-research unit that is part of S&P Global Intelligence. CNN’s subscriber base is expected to fall to 66.3 million by the end of 2024, according to Kagan, down 5.6% from an estimated 70.3 million at the end of 2023 — even though coverage of the next presidential election, typically seen as a time to increase news viewership, will be on full display. A new CEO, Mark Thompson, is expected to start his tenure with CNN next month.
And yet, the world of streaming news has been filled with twists and turns. CNN had hired many prominent journalists for its new service, including Jenn Suozzo, a former executive producer of “NBC Nightly News.” Fox Nation has in recent months placed more emphasis on lifestyle programming, including a reboot of “Cops,” a new documentary series about the history of alcohol featuring alumni of “Saturday Night Live” and a stand-up concert from Roseanne Barr. MSNBC spotlighted Zerlina Maxwell, one of the first anchors to launch an all-streaming program for the NBCUniversal-backed news outlet, but then cancelled her show after cost-cutting mandated cutbacks to its streaming ambitions, which included her Peacock program. Maxwell could not be reached for comment.
“For now, streaming has been good for our journalism students and others looking for entry-level jobs in broadcast news because it has opened up more positions and venues in which they can work,” says Mark Feldstein, chairman of the broadcast journalism program at University of Maryland. “But how long these opportunities will last is unclear. Often these new streaming platforms get shut down, putting their employees back out on the street.”
Hunt had personal challenges that changed the way she thought about her work and career. Very shortly after coming aboard at CNN in 2021, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her entire world shifted. “I had this sense of obligation. They had just gone to great lengths to bring me over, and it was a tough time,” says Hunt. She credits Jeff Zucker, then the executive overseeing CNN, for support. “Part of the reason people are so loyal to Jeff is he does the right thing by people when they are facing their worst challenges,” Hunt says. “I didn’t have much of a chance to work for him, but he did right by me when I needed right to be done, and I’ll never forget that.”
The tumor was found to be benign, and Hunt recovered. But she learned something from the ordeal. “I had to sit down the week before I went in” for the procedure, she says,” I had to figure out what I wanted life for my then two-year-old son to look like without me, It was extraordinarily clarifying and not something I’m going to lose sight of,” she adds. “I wasn’t worrying about whether I would be on television ever again.”
After CNN+ shut down, Hunt tried to focus on tasks at hand. If she was asked to appear on different programs, she did the best she could. “The challenge was, ok, make the best of every single minute I have on CNN and work on becoming part of the CNN family.” She wanted producers to know that when she said she had a scoop, it was locked down, and to feel comfortable with her on air during tumultuous situations, Hunt says she felt fortunate to be working alongside Dana Bash, the Washington veteran, and says Jake Tapper and Abby Phillip advocated for her as she tried to make her way. She also had another reason to take her time: In March of 2023, she gave birth to a daughter after a 13-minute surprise labor.
Now she’s eager to do what she can with her new role. A 5 a.m. program may not be the most-watched, Hunt says, but the audience is often very influential. “There are a lot of people up and watching at that hour, and they are awake,” Hunt says. “It may be, ratings wise, a smaller number on the sheet, but the people who are up and watching news at that hour — they are up for a reason. They have something important to do later. There is an opportunity to build an influential project at that time, and that has sometimes not been fully appreciated in the pat by the networks.” CNN is considering ways to blend Hunt’s work on the early hour with its flagship morning program, “CNN This Morning,” according to a person familiar with the matter, and Hunt is likely to make appearances during that show.
Hunt once anchored an MSNBC evening program called “Kasie DC” that had her interviewing Washington experts, but she feels viewers can get to know her better in the morning, where she has a little more freedom to be herself. “It’s very hard to reach people and convince them of something they don’t already think is true in this day age,” she says. “I think being your authentic self on the air is actually really important.” She will soon have two chances to do so each day, after grappling with the possibility of having none.
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