The post-mortem on Chris Licht’s short-lived and ill-fated tenure at the top of CNN will have a familiar tone to anyone who has seen as many corporate beheadings as I have.
Licht couldn’t win over his troops — not just the anchors, but the people who make the trains run on time at the network.
He made numerous unforced errors — bad programming decisions, and too much moaning in the press about all the bad press over his inability to turn around the low-rated network.
There was that disastrous town hall with Donald Trump, and then that idiotic decision to bare his soul to the Atlantic, exposing himself to a reporter (both in the office and at the gym, no less) in ways no chief executive should allow himself to be seen.
His boss, Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav, is said to have been particularly incensed over the gym incident: Licht bragging about his weight loss, showing off his workout routine and diet while boasting, “I’m a f–king machine.”
It was proof, in Zas’ thinking, that Licht’s focus wasn’t on job No. 1 — remaking CNN from the off-the-cliff progressivism of his predecessor, Jeff Zucker, and improving ratings by appealing to Middle America.
So yes, all of that contributed to Licht’s exit.
Yet when you get past all of Licht’s stumbles, all the self-inflicted wounds, he also had a nearly impossible job — as does his eventual full-time replacement.
Remaking CNN into something different than an unwatchable carbon copy of the socialist banter of MSNBC will require a Herculean effort and a lot of shakeups and firings.
And he could thank Jeff Zucker for that.
When CNN was taken over by Zas & Co. following the AT&T spinoff of Warner Media, Zucker had transformed the network into something Ted Turner would never have recognized.
It became a war room of CNN talent against Republicans in general and Trump in particular.
And the rank and file reveled in the combat more than they loved the job of simply reporting the news.
There was little in the way of the balanced nuance of COVID, the lockdowns, the efficacy of vaccines, or sleepy Joe Biden’s presidential campaign conducted from his basement.
Zucker thought that appealing to the left and bashing Trump at every turn was good TV. He had an entire news division believing the same.
He boasted some high ratings, to be sure, but a closer look at the numbers shows everyone’s ratings were higher back then. Trump was great on TV.
Then COVID kept people inside and glued to their TV sets.
Cord-cutting hadn’t quite started to take its pound of flesh.
Yet Zucker’s CNN was still a third-place network in overall viewers. It holds then, as now, just around a 20% market share, behind far higher numbers of first-place Fox (my employer) and second-place MSNBC.
Doesn’t take a TV genius to realize Zas — in charge of making the $43 billion Discovery-Warner Media deal work — had no choice but to do something, anything to change CNN so it could appeal to a broader audience.
Zucker was booted from CNN in early 2022 for having an affair with a subordinate in violation of company rules.
But it’s hard to imagine he would have lasted anyway under Zaslav’s new direction.
Zucker, now ensconced in a private equity firm, has no doubt fed the anti-Licht narrative inside CNN HQ.
Now CNN’s liberal employees all have what they wanted — the change agent is gone and it’s back to doing business the old-fashioned Zucker way. Right?
Don’t bet on it.
Sandwiched between Fox and MSNBC, there’s nowhere for CNN to go but the middle.
And Zas is not a patient man.
Wall Streeters who know him say at some point, he’s just going to give up and unload the place, probably to the bean counters in private equity who couldn’t care less about anything but the bottom line.
Zucker’s minions will then be ruing the day they defenestrated Chris Licht.
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