BREAKING: Turn out the Licht, the party's over at CNN

It was fun while it lasted.

The Chris Licht Era at CNN came to an abrupt halt this morning, just thirteen months after it began as an experiment to reorient the cable channel back toward hard news. With ratings evaporating and the press savaging Licht, especially over the decision to offer Donald Trump a town hall event, his days were clearly numbered.


Today the counter hit zero:

Mr. Licht’s 13-month run at CNN was marked by one controversy after another, culminating in his exit earlier this week. He got off to a bumpy start even before he had officially started when he oversaw the shuttering of the costly CNN+ streaming service at the request of its network’s new owners, who were skeptical about a stand-alone digital product. The cuts resulted in scores of layoffs.

David Zaslav, the chief executive of CNN’s parent, Warner Bros. Discovery, informed staff on Wednesday morning that he had met with Mr. Licht and that he was leaving, effective immediately.

How immediately? CNN didn’t waste any time reporting the hard news on its own air:

So now CNN will be run by committee? Warner CEO Zaslav had better make a decision fast on Licht’s replacement. That’s a recipe for disaster, especially in an environment as political as CNN, in all aspects of the word. Licht  may have bungled the strategic vision for CNN, but at least there was a strategic direction. Executive committees rarely work well in any circumstance, but likely will be even worse in this application.

Besides, Licht was hardly the source of CNN’s problems. He just wasn’t the solution. Let’s recall where CNN was when they dumped Jeff Zucker and needed a new top executive:


Licht came to CNN as its ratings and its credibility had already cratered, especially with non-progressive viewers. It had fallen into a competition with MSNBC for a share of the Left while Fox News ate everyone’s lunch and dinner. The idea of recentering CNN in all senses of the word had promise, at least hypothetically, and at least had the novelty of never having been tried. Licht then pared off the most tendentious of its on-air personalities — Brian Stelter immediately, followed by John Harwood and a far-too-late booting of Don Lemon — and tried to engage conservatives and center-right viewers.

The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta offered a pretty good look last week about how well all that worked for Licht:

When he took the helm of CNN, in May 2022, Licht had promised a reset with Republican voters—and with their leader. He had swaggered into the job, telling his employees that the network had lost its way under former President Jeff Zucker, that their hostile approach to Trump had alienated a broader viewership that craved sober, fact-driven coverage. These assertions thrust Licht into a two-front war: fighting to win back Republicans who had written off the network while also fighting to win over his own journalists, many of whom believed that their new boss was scapegoating them to appease his new boss, David Zaslav, who’d hired Licht with a decree to move CNN toward the ideological center.

One year into the job, Licht was losing both battles. Ratings, in decline since Trump left office, had dropped to new lows. Employee morale was even worse. A feeling of dread saturated the company. Licht had accepted the position with ambitions to rehabilitate the entire news industry, telling his peers that Trump had broken the mainstream media and that his goal was to do nothing less than “save journalism.” But Licht had lost the confidence of his own newsroom. Because of this, he had come to view the prime-time event with Trump as the moment that would vindicate his pursuit of Republican viewers while proving to his employees that he possessed a revolutionary vision for their network and the broader news media.


Bad move. In retrospect, Licht should have offered this to another Republican first — maybe Ron DeSantis, or better yet, Nikki Haley, who had already declared for the presidency. (Haley did one with CNN a few days ago.) That would have provided Licht at least a little political cover inside of the newsroom and out. By starting with Trump, Licht gave the appearance of someone desperate for ratings — almost certainly true — and falling into the same trap Zucker had created with all of that earned-media amplification of Trump in 2015.

And even the brief ratings boost turned out to be unsatisfactory:

CNN’s May ratings were dismal, with prime-time viewership less than half of rival of MSNBC, with Fox News Channel still leading among the cable networks.

True, but the ratings were dismal before Licht arrived, too. Credibility was at a low ebb as well. There will be lots of damning leaks about the Licht era coming from CNN and perhaps on-the-record damnation from the people Licht exiled, but the truth is that the organization is basically where it was at 13 months ago. Licht failed, but his failure was in not improving matters appreciably.

At this point, it’s worth asking the question: Do cable-net viewers really want hard news without a point of view? They certainly don’t seem to reward it. Fox News wins every time, and that’s no accident. MSNBC remains competitive, more so than CNN now, and that’s no accident. Licht’s failure likely stems from a very bad bet — that viewers actually want that reportorial approach to news that they demand. I suspect Licht, CNN, and Warner just found out the hard way that people like to virtue signal about what they want, but put their money on entertainment and self-validation instead.


So again … Turn out the Licht, the party’s over at CNN — and likely on straight news on television outside of local markets.

Update: In case some readers don’t get the reference in the headline, here’s a tribute to Monday Night Football’s Dandy Don Meredith. He’d sing this song as soon as a game got out of reach.

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