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CNN chief Chris Licht has massive concepts, however staff are nervous, and extra job cuts are coming

Chris Licht, Chairman and CEO of CNN Worldwide.

Courtesy: CNN

CNN CEO Chris Licht began conducting a enterprise evaluation of the information community when he agreed to take the job in April.

That analysis wrapped up final week, in line with individuals acquainted with the matter, and CNN staff are about to search out out Licht’s conclusions.

Licht faces many challenges at CNN. Like all cable information networks, the enterprise is shrinking. CNN makes cash off promoting and pay-TV subscriber charges. However as thousands and thousands of Individuals cancel conventional pay TV annually in favor of streaming providers, CNN nearly definitely cannot increase subscription charges at a quick sufficient clip to make up for declining viewer numbers.

CNN’s revenue is ready to drop below $1 billion this year for the first time since 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president. Mother or father firm Warner Bros. Discovery‘s valuation has practically been reduce in half this yr as traders have lowered their expectations on global streaming subscriber growth and macroeconomic pressures have pressured advertising revenue.

Licht has been given a mandate from Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav to remodel CNN, which the community boss is internally referring to as a “proper sizing” of the enterprise. Lots of Licht’s job cuts are nonetheless to come back this yr, in line with individuals acquainted with the matter, who requested to not be named as a result of the selections are non-public.

Hours after this story was printed, Licht despatched a memo to all employees confirming the tip of his six-month enterprise and signaling further layoffs will probably be coming.

“There may be widespread concern over the worldwide financial outlook, and we should issue that danger into our long-term planning,” Licht wrote. “All this collectively will imply noticeable change to this group. That, by definition, is unsettling. These adjustments won’t be straightforward as a result of they are going to have an effect on individuals, budgets, and tasks.”

Licht’s evaluation is an element of a bigger effort spearheaded by Zaslav, who has instructed division heads all through the corporate to rethink their models and discover methods to chop prices. Greater than 1,000 individuals will probably be laid off by Warner Bros. Discovery earlier than the tip of the yr, stated the individuals, who requested to not be named as a result of the discussions are non-public and ongoing. Warner Bros. Discovery has about 40,000 staff.

Licht does not have a particular order to chop a certain quantity of jobs or save a particular proportion of spending. However he is planning to chop components of CNN that he have turn out to be bloated over time, stated the individuals. A CNN spokesperson declined to remark.

A few of the reductions have already occurred. Licht has cut back on CNN’s audio division to eliminate unpopular podcasts. He’s shuttered CNN’s NFT marketplace. And his first job was to kill CNN+, the corporate’s fledgling streaming service strongly supported by former CNN head Jeff Zucker.

There have additionally been adjustments to the community’s content material. In Might, Licht told CNN’s TV production staff to cease overusing “Breaking Information” banners. He is altering CNN’s lineup one present at a time, beginning with moving anchor Jake Tapper from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and shifting Don Lemon from 11 pm to co-host “CNN This Morning,” the community’s refurbished morning information present, together with Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins. CNN’s new morning present debuts Nov. 1.

However Licht’s greatest problem — greater than accelerating revenue or income or retooling his programming lineup or profitable rankings battles over Fox Information and MSNBC — could also be to win the belief of his personal staff.

“When [Zaslav] referred to as and provided me the job, he instructed me what he was on the lookout for out of CNN,” Licht stated in a short interview this month. “And I stated, ‘That is precisely the form of community I want to see.’ There is no daylight between his imaginative and prescient for this community and my imaginative and prescient for this community. The one motive why I took this job is as a result of it was him in cost. I assumed, I can ship this for him.”

Shifting from Zucker

A part of Licht’s problem as the brand new chief of CNN is he is not the outdated chief.

Jeff Zucker wasn’t simply the top of CNN. He was the driving power of the community, concerned in each resolution of significance every day. He ran editorial calls, labored intently with each present’s anchors and producers, and offered each day suggestions. He was beloved by many staff who appreciated his consideration to element and care for his or her careers. CNN media reporters Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy referred to as him “a singular determine in American media” the day after he resigned. His closest comparability, by way of management over a cable information community, might have been the late Roger Ailes at Fox Information.

Licht is purposefully main CNN in a different way than Zucker. He is avoiding saying what he thinks about particular person present selections, in line with individuals acquainted with his management fashion. Licht has stated in non-public conferences that he is making an attempt to empower govt producers and present producers to make choices by themselves. He needs staff to listen to marching orders from direct managers fairly than him. That is a major change for present leaders who’ve been conditioned to attend for Zucker’s blessing earlier than performing.

Jeff Zucker, left, and David Zaslav

Chris Kleponis | Bloomberg by way of Getty Photos; CNBC

“I really like the management room, and I really like the sensation of sending a textual content and seeing it present up on display screen 10 minutes later, however there’s a lot occurring that we’ll be paralyzed if everyone seems to be ready to listen to from me,” stated Licht. “That is simply not how I function.”

Some staff have not been certain what to make of Licht’s hands-off fashion. They concern he is evaluating them — which he has been. However Licht’s lack of suggestions can also be strategic. He might solely be capable of get his staff to belief him with time.

There’s additionally a hangover impact from the sudden collapse of CNN+, which Zucker pushed relentlessly as the way forward for the enterprise. A whole bunch of staff had been employed solely to lose their jobs or reapply elsewhere within the firm. The streaming service served as a north star for the way forward for CNN. That is out of the blue gone, leaving an worker base confused about CNN’s future.

A brand new period

Licht’s strategy is not the one factor altering. He needs CNN to cowl tales extra like a newspaper and fewer like Politico, in line with individuals acquainted with his considering. Meaning extra tales that a mean household would focus on across the dinner desk and fewer obsessive concentrate on politics. He’d prefer to cowl extra enterprise, expertise and even sports activities, stated the individuals, who requested to not be named as a result of the discussions had been non-public.

Chris Licht, Chairman and CEO, CNN Worldwide speaks onstage in the course of the Warner Bros. Discovery Upfront 2022 present at The Theater at Madison Sq. Backyard on Might 18, 2022 in New York Metropolis.

Dimitrios Kambouris | Getty Photos

That is significantly necessary for moments in time that are not dominated by crises. One in all Licht’s main complaints with CNN in recent times has been the community’s tendency to hover in outrage, stated the individuals. Pushing conversations to the acute on a subject resembling a brand new coronavirus mutation might make for compelling tv, but when Individuals are shifting ahead with their days and never even talking about it, it is not proper for CNN, stated the individuals.

Licht is already considering learn how to cowl Trump if he runs for president once more in 2024. Licht hasn’t instructed anchors or reporters to turn out to be extra centrist, opposite to common perception, in line with individuals acquainted with his conversations with expertise. He does need viewpoints from each side of the political divide to look on CNN. However he will not stand for friends who push disinformation, he stated.

“The analogy I really like to make use of is a few individuals like rain, some individuals do not like rain. We should always give area to that. However we won’t have somebody who comes on and says it is not raining,” Licht stated.

It will require CNN anchors, reporters and bookers to steer friends into matters they’re certified to discuss. CNN will not ban friends who’ve supported the false declare that the 2020 election was stolen, however the community will try to preserve conversations with these individuals in protected zones of fact, stated individuals acquainted with Licht’s considering.

The analogy I really like to make use of is a few individuals like rain, some individuals do not like rain. We should always give area to that. However we won’t have somebody who comes on and says it is not raining.

The thought Licht would steer CNN towards the political proper is considerably ironic – and flawed, Licht stated – provided that he credit then-Vice President Joe Biden with saving his life in 2010. Licht had a cerebral hemorrhage that almost killed him when he was 38. On the time, he was producing NBC’s “Morning Joe.” Biden helped discover a high neurosurgeon for Licht on the behest of “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski. Licht would ultimately write a guide concerning the incident and the way it formed it life, titled “What I Learned When I Almost Died.” The Every day Beast asked Licht in 2011 how he would combat off criticism from conservatives who believed Biden’s intervention in his care might bias him towards a Democratic agenda.

Reasonably than pushing politics, Licht has instructed anchors he is on the lookout for authenticity on air. That perspective is what prompted him to heart the community’s primetime lineup round Tapper. Licht pushed Stephen Colbert to faucet into his actual character as host of CBS’ “The Late Present With Stephen Colbert,” CNN content material chief Ryan Kadro told CNBC earlier this year.

However Tapper’s present has struggled out of the gate, constantly shedding to his competitors for complete viewers to MSNBC’s “Alex Wagner Tonight” and Fox Information’ “Hannity.” CNN executives are writing off the early poor efficiency to Tapper experimenting with the shape, saying he is effectually doing a pilot present every night time. Nevertheless it’s doable primetime viewers aren’t on the lookout for the identical factor Licht needs — a no-nonsense host who steers clear of shock.

Months of unease

CNN has about 4,500 staff. For them, the final 18 months have been rife with chaos and trauma.

CNN has been by a litany of destabilizing company occasions courting again to final Might. That is when AT&T introduced it could merge WarnerMedia, then CNN’s father or mother firm, with Discovery. Together with the transaction, Zaslav introduced he’d change Jason Kilar as WarnerMedia’s new CEO.

Mergers nearly at all times trigger change. However John Malone, a longtime Discovery shareholder who now sits on the mixed firm’s board, injected a jolt of uncertainty into CNN’s tradition in a November interview with CNBC.

“I want to see CNN evolve again to the form of journalism that it began with, and really have journalists, which might be distinctive and refreshing,” stated the billionaire media mogul and longtime chairman of Liberty Media, which is a serious shareholder in Warner Bros. Discovery.

Watch CNBC's full interview with Liberty Media's John Malone on WarnerMedia-Discovery deal

The feedback heightened nervousness for a lot of CNN staffers, in line with six individuals who had been on the firm on the time. If Malone did not assume CNN had “precise” journalists, who had been the practically 1,000 reporters and editors all over the world employed by CNN?

Initially, there was a way CNN might keep away from main layoffs or a strategic revamp as a result of Zucker was longtime associates with Zaslav. Zucker believed he was in line to take a good larger position on the firm, in line with individuals acquainted with his thought course of.

However Zucker abruptly resigned in February after failing to reveal an inner relationship with CNN chief advertising officer Allison Gollust. The stunning revelation arose from due diligence associated to a different CNN scandal — anchor Chris Cuomo losing his job after the community discovered he improperly suggested his brother, then-N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, about how to handle a sequence of sexual harassment allegations.

Zucker’s departure would have been troublesome to navigate beneath any circumstances given his outsized position. Nevertheless it was significantly dangerous timing solely three months earlier than the merger, which might carry a model new company management staff.

The brutally brief lifetime of CNN+

Even worse, CNN was simply months away from launching CNN+. Merger regulation did not permit Discovery to debate technique with CNN management. However CNBC reported immediately upon Zucker’s departure that Zaslav wasn’t bought on the concept of CNN+ as a standalone streaming service.

Nonetheless, with out a directive to cease shifting forward with the launch, CNN+ head Andrew Morse stored pushing ahead. CNN+ debuted on March 29, backed by $300 million of funding. On April 8, WarnerMedia formally merged with Discovery, placing Zaslav in cost. Lower than two weeks later, WarnerMedia announced it would shut down CNN+. The streaming service lasted for 32 days.

Zaslav referred to as in Licht about three weeks earlier than his previously announced start date of May 1 to bless the loss of life of CNN+. He needed to inform tons of of CNN staff they’d lose their jobs earlier than he even formally began.

In August, Licht ended Sunday afternoon media show “Reliable Sources” and fired Stelter, who had years left on his contract. The choice was Licht’s, not Zaslav’s or Malone’s, in line with individuals acquainted with the matter. Final month, Licht let go CNN White House correspondent John Harwood, a former reporter and editor for CNBC.

Each Stelter and Harwood had been outspoken Trump critics. Given Malone’s feedback, observers and employees have assumed Licht is surgically eradicating those that have coloured the CNN model as liberal over the previous six years.

CEO of Discovery Communications David Zaslav arrives for the Allen & Firm Solar Valley Convention on July 06, 2021 in Solar Valley, Idaho.

Kevin Dietsch | Getty Photos

However Licht stated that is “painfully inaccurate.” A part of Licht’s resolution to remove “Dependable Sources” was his perception media protection was higher served digitally on CNN.com fairly than dedicating a one-hour Sunday present to it, as he defined in a response to a column by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

Nonetheless, Stelter wasn’t provided an opportunity to remain at CNN in any capability, at the same time as a digital media reporter, in line with individuals acquainted with the matter. There’s clear signaling profit to these turned off by CNN by rapidly shifting on from those that gained recognition for being anti-Trump. And Licht does not run from the concept CNN’s model was tarnished in the course of the Trump years.

“The model is essentially the most trusted model on the earth on the subject of journalism, proper up there with the BBC,” Licht stated. “I feel what occurred a little bit bit right here previously was it is simple to take the short sugar excessive of rankings and outrage. So, I am making an attempt to do no hurt to a terrific model.”

Investing in digital

A merger, a sudden CEO departure, a right away finish to a digital streaming service, tons of of layoffs, and the prospect of extra to come back – it is no marvel CNN’s workforce is strolling on eggshells, a truth Licht and his staff have privately acknowledged.

Licht depends on a reasonably tight interior circle of CNN veterans and new hires for strategic choices. He is introduced in Kadro, head of technique Chris Marlin and head of communications Kris Coratti in current months, whereas elevating Virginia Moseley to move of editorial. Amy Entelis, Michael Bass and Ken Jautz additionally stay at CNN in key roles — the trio asked to run the network after Zucker departed.

Licht has been a TV producer his complete skilled life, beginning in 1995 at KNBC in Los Angeles. In 2007, he took his first nationwide job, serving to to create “Morning Joe” for MSNBC. He left that position in 2011 to be the vp of programming at CBS Information and the chief producer of “CBS This Morning.” In 2016, Licht made the bizarre shift from information to comedy, taking up an govt producing job at CBS’ “The Late Present with Stephen Colbert.”

Licht plans to ramp up funding in CNN.com, which his staff feels has been mismanaged as a result of all the digital cash and energy went to CNN+, the individuals stated. However he’ll must do it as Warner Bros. Discovery is trying to cut costs.

CNN is upgrading its behind-the-scenes content material administration system, or CMS, and its digital video participant, which is able to carry incremental redesigns to CNN.com, in line with individuals acquainted with the matter. CNN.com attracts greater than 180 million month-to-month distinctive viewers, making it one of many world’s hottest information websites. The adjustments also needs to carry workflow alignments to CNN digital and linear, which ought to assist each entities’ content material and group.

Whereas digital is not Licht’s background, he is labored in current months to study extra about it, in line with individuals acquainted his discussions. CNN nonetheless hasn’t named a chief digital officer, though the company’s job posting now says it’s filled. Sources stated a deal is sort of completed and an announcement will come quickly.

CNN’s near-term future is just like that of Fox Information and MSNBC — survive as a subscriber fee-collecting cable community for so long as doable. It is extra more likely to present up as a part of the corporate’s bundled streaming service than a standalone information service. This was a serious concern of Kilar and Zucker, who believed CNN would get buried in a big streaming service, constructed to suggest the most recent films and hit TV sequence as a substitute of stories.

However whereas Zucker and Kilar had been intent on investing in CNN’s future now, Licht’s focus mirrors Zaslav’s: preserve cable subscriber charges flowing. Like different division leaders at Warner Bros. Discovery, Licht’s focus is rising profitability. For now, meaning old skool tv – profitable time slots, boosting promoting and throwing his power into enhancing CNN’s linear cable information community for U.S. and worldwide audiences.

Disclosure: Comcast’s NBCUniversal is the father or mother firm of MSNBC and CNBC.

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