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Chris Licht has earned a reputation as something of a turnaround artist.
Licht, a veteran producer most recently of CBS’ Late Show With Stephen Colbert, is Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s pick to run CNN after the WarnerMedia merger is completed in the coming weeks. At CBS, and MSNBC before it, Licht was regarded as a hands-on manager and producer, someone adept at taking programs in need of rethinking and helping them find their vision, according to multiple people who worked with him.
“This is one of the big, big, big, big boy jobs, there is no doubt in my mind that he has the intelligence, he has the cajones, he has the wit, to take it all on,” CBS Mornings co-anchor Gayle King told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. “I can’t wait to see what he is going to do.”
“He has a knack for putting people together, for spotting talent,” King added.
His hands-on history with programming and talent will likely be welcome at CNN, where former chief Jeff Zucker was known to take an active role with anchors, suggesting questions or guests and giving feedback on segments most days. Zucker resigned from CNN on Feb. 2, citing a romantic relationship with chief marketing officer Allison Gollust that wasn’t properly disclosed.
Two CNN employees who regularly appear on-air said they were encouraged by the hiring of Licht, noting his reputation as a thoughtful producer and for his skills at navigating the needs of networks with the desires of high-profile talent.
Joe Scarborough, the co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, told THR Monday that Licht was “no-nonsense,” and would bring a “refreshing” perspective to CNN.
“He is very hard-nosed, forgive me for the sports analogy but he is like a tough middle linebacker, he is not going to be sitting up in an executive office trying to figure out what to do,” Scarborough said.
That proactive role was present in the note Licht sent to CNN employees Monday, where he said that he plans “to do a lot of listening,” and that he wants their “candid thoughts and feedback.
“Our viewers demand the trust from us, and I want to learn the truth from you,” he added.
Inside CNN, the hiring of Licht is already generating text chains about what it means for the future of the venerable news outlet, both on-air and in streaming, with the CNN+ streaming service set to launch in coming weeks.
While Licht has managed shows with dozens of employees, CNN has thousands around the world, and he will likely need to lean on network veterans to keep things running smoothly, at least in the near term. His wife, Jenny Blanco, previously worked at CNN for more than a decade in a number of roles.
In the medium and long-term, there will be changes, though the form they take will depend on what Licht learns after he arrives.
“I know you have a lot of questions. Perhaps the biggest one is how will CNN change? The honest answer is that I don’t know yet,” Licht wrote to CNNers Monday. “David Zaslav has given me one simple directive: To ensure that CNN remains the global leader in NEWS [emphasis Licht’s] as part of Warner Bros. Discovery.”
During the Trump presidency, Zucker pushed CNN’s primetime lineup to be more opinionated and analysis-driven, leaning on hosts like Chris Cuomo who mixed strong points of view into their programs. Cuomo, of course, was fired by CNN in late 2021, leaving the 9 p.m. slot vacant. Whoever Licht taps for 9 p.m. is expected to be a bellwether of where he and Discovery see the cable news channel moving.
“I think the biggest change you are going to see at CNN, especially in primetime, is I think you are going see a lot more hard news and a lot less opinion,” Scarborough says. “He just doesn’t have space in his head for that.”
Adds King, “I think that he already has a million ideas, and can’t wait to get started, because that is how his mind operates.”
Licht joined Colbert’s show in 2016, helping to push it to first place in the late night ratings race with an emphasis on depth, newsy interviews and occasional live episodes tied to news events, which worked in concert with the regular cadence of comedy.
He joined CBS from MSNBC, where he was executive producer of Morning Joe, a program that began as a temporary replacement for a simulcast of Dom Imus’ radio show, but has since become one of the cable channel’s most reliable performers.
Licht would occasionally appear on-air from the control room himself (Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse of Public Communications has a control room on campus named after him, and as it happens, the Newhouse family will become one of the largest outside shareholders in Warner Bros. Discovery once the merger is complete).
“Nobody sort of got the vision of where I wanted to go with [Scarborough Country, the primetime predecessor to Morning Joe]. In about two days, Chris and I were talking in shorthand when he became the EP,” Scarborough recalls.
Morning Joe turned the morning cable news format on its head. CNN was running a typical “anchor at the desk” news program at the time, while Fox News’ Fox & Friends was using a format closer to that of the network morning shows (cheerful co-hosts sitting around the couch).
Morning Joe was far more casual, with sprawling conversations between hosts and guests, but the topics were often serious, with less fluff. The result was a show that turned MSNBC’s morning futures around, and while it didn’t propel the channel to first place in the ratings, Morning Joe has become so critical to the channel it will expand to four hours every morning this spring, with a Morning Mika spinoff planned for the Peacock streaming service.
He pulled off a similar effort at CBS before his jump to late night. The network morning program The Early Show was mired in third place, relying on a morning format indistinguishable from NBC or ABC. Licht was tasked with reinventing it.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t even be at CBS. It is not like I was looking for a job or trying to get into the network. I didn’t even know there was an opening at CBS,” King recalls. “He called me and his opening line was, ‘We want to reimagine the morning news at CBS. Are you interested in a conversation?’”
The result was CBS This Morning, which leaned on, yes, conversations between the hosts (co-anchor Norah O’Donnell would later tell this reporter it was like a “dinner party conversation” that happened to be in the morning). CBS didn’t vault to first place in the morning show ratings, but the show’s ratings fortunes nonetheless rose, built on serious news credibility.
“I got to know him because I was a guest on Morning Joe, and he clearly saw something in those appearances where he thought, ‘Maybe she would be a good fit,’” King adds. “Our tagline at CBS This Morning in the beginning was ‘The News Is Back in the Morning.’ You get that template of original reporting and exquisite storytelling, which I believe still holds true today.”
It’s a record that even has Scarborough rooting for the cable news competition.
“I am really excited just as a viewer of news,” Scarborough said of Licht’s hiring. “It is going to be great.”
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