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CNN anchor Chris Cuomo’s abrupt termination has thrown a wrench into the cable news channel’s 2022 plans.
The news channel was originally hoping to leverage Cuomo, who hosted its most watched nightly program (Cuomo Prime Time) to help it launch CNN+, its forthcoming streaming service. CNN had already found some digital success with Cuomo through a podcast he hosted with Don Lemon called The Handoff, which Apple said last month was the fifth-most-popular subscription podcast on its platform.
The CNN+ launch in turn would lead into parent company WarnerMedia’s merger with Discovery, which staff were hoping would result in renewed investment in news when it closes next year.
Instead, CNN now finds itself having to effectively rebuild its primetime lineup and decide whether it wants to lean into the more opinionated news-analysis of Cuomo and 10 p.m. host Don Lemon, or return to a more traditional newscast, closer to some of its dayside programming.
At the same time, it needs to prime CNN+ to make a compelling offering for its launch, which is CNN’s biggest investment in years. And it must do all that knowing that Discovery and its CEO David Zaslav could choose to toss out that work and start over when and if the merger is completed.
But priority number one is finding a suitable replacement for Cuomo at 9 p.m. It’s no small task, given Cuomo’s status as anchor of CNN’s most watched program, even if its 959,000 average nightly viewers in Q3 were notably behind Fox News’ Hannity and MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show.
“I understand that this has been a very unfortunate distraction for this organization,” CNN president Jeff Zucker told staff on CNN’s Monday morning editorial call, according to someone who was listening in, adding that “we do need to move on.” A day later, on Tuesday, Zucker told staff about Cuomo’s replacement plans, saying “diversity is always a factor that we will take into account.”
Part of the problem, sources at CNN and some of its competitors say, is that while CNN has a deep bench of journalists, the commentary and analysis-driven program that Cuomo led is out of the wheelhouse for many of those reporters.
The internal candidate that two cited as the best fit for the role was Jake Tapper, who anchors The Lead from 4-6 p.m. on weekdays, and State of the Union on Sundays, combining tough, newsmaking interviews with the latest headlines and occasional commentary.
On CNN’s Sunday show this week, Tapper delivered a closing monologue that would have fit right in during Cuomo’s hour, excoriating Hollywood and the NBA over ties to China and a willingness to self-censor for the benefit of Beijing. Tapper noted that the country is accused of forcing the Uyghur ethnic minority group into camps and disappearing citizens who criticize the state party, including, most recently, tennis star Peng Shuai.
“The millionaires and billionaires of Hollywood and the NBA and the IOC and Wall Street are all so eager for Chinese cash, they’re pretending none of this is happening,” Tapper said, scorn dripping from his voice. “There is no amount of money that can buy enough soap to wash that blood off their hands.”
But CNN will also likely consider outside candidates, with some, like outgoing MSNBC 11 p.m. anchor Brian Williams, already comfortable blending commentary with news.
If CNN decided to focus its efforts on a more straightforward newscast, the TV news business has been buzzing about the possibility that Norah O’Donnell could depart CBS Evening News next year when her contract is up.
Hiring a high-profile outsider could also bolster CNN+ if the new talent splits their duties between the streaming service and linear.
John Malone, the cable mogul and largest shareholder of Discovery, who has been a mentor to Zaslav, expressed his own preference on CNBC Nov. 18 before Cuomo’s firing, saying “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.”
Meanwhile Brooke Baldwin, who was an afternoon anchor at CNN until departing earlier this year, took to her Instagram page on Sunday and said that Cuomo’s departure creates an opportunity for the channel. “I would like to see CNN put a woman in that 9 p.m. spot. Not me, I’ve moved on, but there are plenty of brilliant women they could choose from,” Baldwin said. “CNN primetime has been dominated by male hosts, and well, it’s nearly 2022, wouldn’t you like to see a woman successfully lead in primetime?”
On the Monday morning call, Zucker told staff that they have “made absolutely no programming decisions for that hour beyond this week, but we’ll begin to think about that soon.” Michael Smerconish, a regular fill-in for Cuomo, is filling in this week. He addressed Cuomo’s firing at the top of Monday’s show, adding, “Our job is to continue to bring you the news, and that’s what we’ll do tonight.”
And while the Discovery merger is on the horizon, CNN is unlikely to wait the months before the deal closes to make a decision, particularly with the companies feeling more pressure from legislators and regulators, and with planning for the 2022 midterm elections already underway.
On Friday, 33 members of Congress sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter asking them “to conduct a thorough review of this transaction to ensure that it does not harm American consumers and workers by illegally harming competition.”
With the potential for regulatory approval to move farther out into 2022, CNN will need to move forward with its programming changes and streaming launch.
And then there’s Jeff Zucker, the head of WarnerMedia news and sports and CNN’s president. A close friend of Zaslav, Zucker has been cited by a number of reports as a potential deputy to the CEO at Warner Bros. Discovery, overseeing the company’s East Coast operations, with Zaslav planning to be based in Los Angeles.
Internally, some at CNN thought Zucker could oversee an expanded Warner Bros. Discovery news and sports portfolio that would include Discovery’s international news channels as well as Eurosport, which holds the pan-European rights to the Olympic Games.
But the Cuomo situation applies fresh pressure on Zucker, who supported the anchor earlier in the year after his participation in his brother’s response to harassment allegations first came to light.
CNN and Cuomo initially acknowledged the mistake and were hoping to move on.
And while senior executives at the channel knew that the CNN anchor’s deposition and other supporting documents would probably become public, the expectation was that those files would largely back up what Cuomo had said publicly and in private to them, even if the disclosures were embarrassing. Instead, one CNN source said, they showed a level of participation beyond what the company knew about.
A spokesperson for Cuomo said that the anchor and Zucker “were widely known to be extremely close and in regular contact, including about the details of Mr. Cuomo’s support for his brother. There were no secrets about this,” however Zucker, speaking to staff Monday, said that Cuomo “gave me his word” that his involvement was limited to what was disclosed initially.
“Chris had been much more deeply involved than we’d ever known, and than he’d ever told us,” Zucker said.
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