Chris Licht, the former television producer who oversaw a brief and chaotic run as chairman of CNN, is out at the network.
David Zaslav, chief executive of CNN’s parent Warner Bros. Discovery, informed staff Wednesday morning that he had met with Licht and that he was leaving, effective immediately.
Licht’s 13-month run at CNN was marked by one controversy after another. 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.
“For a number of reasons things didn’t work out, and that’s unfortunate,” Zaslav said, according to a recording of his remarks. “It’s really unfortunate, and ultimately that’s on me. And I take full responsibility for that.”
“This job was never going to be easy, especially at a time of great disruption and transformation,” he continued. “Chris poured his heart and soul into this job. Like all of you, he was in the line of fire and he’s taken a lot of hits. We appreciate his efforts, his passion, his love for journalism, and his love for this business.”
Zaslav said that an interim group of leaders — CNN veterans Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, and Eric Sherling, as well as newly appointed chief operating officer David Leavy — would take over before a permanent leader was installed. He said the process could take several months.
Licht’s departure represents a dramatic fall not long after he departed as an executive producer of Stephen Colbert’s top-rated late night show and vowed to bring a middle-of-the-road balance to CNN’s journalism. When Licht took the job, he told friends it was a “calling.”
The job would prove much more difficult. Ratings plummeted during Licht’s management and a series of programming miscues — including an ill-fated morning show co-anchored by Don Lemon, as well as organizing a town hall featuring former president Donald Trump that was subject to withering criticism — did little to shore up support with his colleagues.
Things deteriorated last week when The Atlantic published a 15,000-word profile extensively documenting Licht’s stormy tenure, including criticism of the network’s pandemic coverage that rankled the network’s rank-and-file.
Further worsening matters was CNN’s financial performance. The network generated $750 million in profit last year, including one-time losses from the CNN+ streaming service, down from $1.25 billion the year before.
Licht’s abrupt departure, earlier reported by Puck, represents the latest hit in a tumultuous era for the network.
In December 2021, prime-time anchor Chris Cuomo was fired amid an ethics scandal involving his brother, former governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. Two months later, the network’s longtime CEO Jeff Zucker was let go for failing to disclose a relationship with a colleague, the senior executive Allison Gollust, who was likewise pushed out within weeks of Zucker’s departure.
It did not help matters for Licht that Zucker enjoyed wide loyalty from top anchors as well as rank-and-file workers, even after his exit. Once employees began souring on Licht, Zucker turned into a quasi-grievance switchboard for frustrated staff members.
One of Licht’s first big programming moves was to reassign Lemon from his prime-time perch to a new morning show. Licht said the show, which Lemon would anchor with Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, would “set the tone for the news organization.”
Instead, “CNN This Morning,” which debuted in November, was marred by low ratings and tensions on and off the set. Two months after Lemon said that a woman over the age of 50 was not “in her prime,” he was fired, effectively blowing up the show that had been Licht’s signature project.
That was not the only misstep. Licht took his time — Warner Bros. Discovery executives believed far too much time — to figure out a prime-time lineup as it was rapidly losing viewers. To the shock of many CNN staff members, the network began last month to occasionally lose to Newsmax in total viewers in prime time. And the Trump town hall, which aired on May 10, was excoriated both outside and within CNN.
Just last week, Zaslav installed Leavy, a trusted lieutenant, as the network’s chief operating officer, a move that suggested he believed Licht needed urgent management help.
On Monday, after The Atlantic published its devastating story, Licht addressed the CNN staff and said he would “fight like hell” to earn back their trust.
He never got that chance.