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What the Shakeup at CNN Says About the Future of Cable News

May 29, 2023

By Clare Malone

New York City went to sleep Tuesday night under an acrid haze and an apocalyptically eerie sky. Little did we know that it wasn't just the work of Canadian wildfires but the television gods portending ill: with the morning came news that Chris Licht, the C.E.O of CNN, had been fired. Licht, who had spurred so many gossipy headlines and titillated certain media columnists to no end, was felled in a blaze of remarkable TV-exec hubris, having participated in a good old-fashioned magazine profile. "Zucker couldn't do this shit," Licht said in one memorable scene, referencing his predecessor while hoisting a metal pole under the keen eye of his celebrity trainer.

Licht took over CNN last year in the fog of scandal. Jeff Zucker had been ousted after it was revealed that he had been in a long-term affair with a fellow-executive at the network. Now Zucker thinks that was pretense—an elaborate cover for CNN's new owner to get rid of him, a man who many believe made the network synonymous with anti-Trump sentiment. That new owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, was the latest hybrid beast, cobbled together from prestige parts—HBO and CNN—and Discovery's lowbrow reality-TV chum, to emerge from the fragmented media landscape. David Zaslav, who piloted the merger and would run the new company, needed to cut costs and make an inordinate amount of money. (Warner Bros. Discovery was born with more than fifty billion dollars in debt.) Zaslav had a behind-the-scenes partner: his mentor John Malone, the libertarian billionaire. A photograph of Malone is positioned prominently on a credenza behind Zaslav's desk, in L.A., where you might find a portrait of a wife or children.

After the merger went through, in the spring of 2022, one of Zaslav's first major moves was to shut down CNN+, CNN's streaming experiment, a month after it launched. He also killed a Batgirl movie that was already in postproduction and laid off more than three hundred CNN employees. Zaslav's generous pay—north of two hundred and forty-six million dollars in 2021, when the merger was taking shape—and newly minted media moguldom, which comes with perfectly pressed summer suits and a Beverly Hills villa previously owned by Robert Evans, belied his somewhat straightforward task of nickel-and-diming the company into something near profitability.

Prior to the merger, there was Wall Street chatter that Warner Bros. Discovery should sell CNN, but Malone has been emphatic that it remain in the fold. "A coward's way out would be to sell [CNN] or spin it off and then sell it," he told CNBC, in 2021. For a man so famously motivated by profit, Malone seemed swayed by the gauzy civic promise of running a legacy news network. He wanted CNN to dial down what he saw as its #Resistance sympathies and win back a broader swath of viewers. "Fox News, in my opinion, has followed an interesting trajectory of trying to have news news, I mean some actual journalism, embedded in a program schedule of all opinions," he said. "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."

Licht was brought in by Zaslav to do the difficult work of actually changing the company's culture. In the summer of 2022, Licht went to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers, in what some saw as a distasteful apology tour to placate Republicans. That August, Brian Stelter, the anchor of "Reliable Sources" and an earnest critic of Donald Trump and Fox, was let go, soon followed by John Harwood, a White House correspondent who had called Trump a "dishonest demagogue." Brianna Keilar, who, during the Trump Administration, was known for her sharp interviews with dissembling Republicans, reportedly turned heads inside the network when she tweeted harsh criticism of Joe Biden. Jim Acosta, whose tangles with the Trump White House were the stuff of Twitter legend—and scorn—became a more subdued presence, particularly after rumors emerged that he was the next on-air talent Licht might fire.

Meanwhile, ratings plummeted and tabloid scandals proliferated. "A woman is considered to be in her prime in her twenties and thirties and maybe forties," Don Lemon declared on his morning show, in February. He was fired two months later and did not go quietly. Jake Tapper, a star anchor in the Zucker era, didn't rate well in the network's coveted 9 P.M. slot. Licht decided to try Kaitlan Collins, a thirty-one-year-old from Alabama who got her start at the Daily Caller, which was co-founded by Tucker Carlson. There was speculation among CNN insiders that Licht was getting his marching orders directly from Zaslav and, by proxy, Malone. The Atlantic reported that Licht had told staff he was trying to " ‘protect’ them from editorial interference at the corporate level," and that people saw Zaslav as "a control freak, a micromanager, a relentless operator who helicoptered over his embattled CNN leader."

Perhaps predictably, given America's entrenched political climate, Licht's attempt to roll the network to the center hasn't worked. During the Trump years, CNN made more than a billion dollars a year in profit. In 2022, it made around seven hundred and fifty million. "CNN, for Warner Bros. Discovery, is a reputational asset," Licht told The Atlantic, when asked about the network's struggles. "My boss believes that a strong CNN is good for the world and important to the portfolio." Licht seems to have believed whoever was spinning him internally until it was too late.

Zaslav's goal could well be to slough off as much debt as possible in order to present a prettified Warner Bros. Discovery for marriage to the subsidiary of yet another media behemoth (cough, Comcast, cough) as soon as negotiations are contractually allowed, in April, 2024. Which is to say, as much as he—and Malone—might care about the state of American journalism, they also care quite a bit about profits. The cable business is now in rapid decline. The recent news that ESPN will eventually offer its full buffet of programming through a streaming service only hastens the cracking of the cable bundle, since live sports are the main draw for many subscribers. In a dying industry, the metric of success is often how well one manages inevitable decline. Licht's attempts to create bipartisan news, whatever that means, might not have been executed particularly well, but the industry's changing structure was always going to make his task of running a post-Trump news network difficult. What remains to be seen is whether Zaslav and Malone will continue to sing the virtues of centrism or if Wall Street will, in a great irony of ironies, push them leftward—back to a proven model of profitability. ♦