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Chris Licht, named new head of CNN, is expected to restore hard-news sensibility

The CBS executive, who also co-created ‘Morning Joe,’ is tasked with helping the network overcome a recent series of controversies

Chris Licht, seen here in 2019, has been named the new head of CNN, replacing Jeff Zucker. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Chris Licht, a CBS executive who has been tapped to lead CNN, hopes to steer the network back to its hard-news roots and away from the opinionated tone that flourished in cable news during the Trump era, according to people who have talked to the veteran producer.

At a time when the nation’s chief executive declared media to be an “enemy of the state,” many CNN hosts and reporters felt empowered to speak their minds. But Licht did not think the heated rhetoric that ensued always served the audience, these people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

“There’s a difference between standing up for yourself,” Licht told a friend recently, “and becoming part of the resistance.”

Licht, 50, was announced Monday as CNN Global’s new chairman and chief executive, a role he is expected to take up in early May, after a deal is completed for the television conglomerate Discovery Inc. to take control of CNN’s parent, WarnerMedia.

He will replace Jeff Zucker, who abruptly resigned from CNN on Feb. 2 after failing to disclose a romantic relationship with a longtime colleague, Allison Gollust. She later resigned, under pressure, as well.

Before joining CBS, Licht distinguished himself at MSNBC, where he was the co-creator and original executive producer of “Morning Joe,” the network’s flagship morning show. He also helped launch CBS’s morning show, now called “CBS Mornings,” and more recently is credited with turning around the ratings performance of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” which he currently oversees.

Licht has been friendly for 15 years with his new boss, David Zaslav, who will serve as chief executive of the combined Warner Bros. Discovery; the two briefly overlapped at NBCUniversal before Zaslav became CEO of Discovery in 2007. Licht frequently turned to Zaslav for career advice, friends say — and Zaslav, in turn, sought out Licht’s counsel as he looked ahead to the challenges of overseeing a major news network after a career in the entertainment sector.

In a statement, Zaslav called Licht “a true news person” who he said “makes every organization stronger, more innovative and more cohesive.”

In his own statement, Licht praised CNN’s journalistic reputation and said he is “honored to have this opportunity, especially at such an important time for our country and the world.”

Licht’s appointment was widely praised by CNN journalists when plans for the pick were leaked on Saturday and first reported by Puck.

“He’s the right guy for this job, undeniably,” said Jay Sures, co-president of talent agency UTA, who represents many of CNN’s top anchors and correspondents. “People are going to want to follow his direction because he has real news chops.”

Jonathan Klein, who served as president of CNN U.S. before Zucker, praised Licht as an innovator who crafted “Morning Joe” with “smart substance that proved engrossing to audiences,” instead of the cooking segments and soft-focus celebrity features that were a hallmark of morning TV. Licht cheered on co-host Mika Brzezinski in 2007 when she dramatically fed a news script into a shredder rather than read the latest developments on Paris Hilton’s legal woes to the audience — helping to set the tone for the show early in its run.

“He hasn’t pandered,” Klein said. “He’s elevated every program he’s touched.”

Klein noted that some of the programs he created at CNN 15 years ago are “still pretty much what they’ve always been” and that it’s “time for some new approaches, which Chris will bring.”

Ahead of Licht’s appointment, CNN employees and observers looked to Zaslav’s appointment of a new president for hints of what editorial direction he wants the network to take — particularly after Discovery shareholder John Malone said in a November interview that he “would like to see CNN evolve back to the journalism it started with.”

Over the past decade, CNN’s once-studiously neutral tone gave way to something more opinionated and emotional, as Zucker gave top on-air talent the leeway to speak their minds — a development that unnerved some news traditionalists, said Mark Whitaker, a former CNN executive and editor of Newsweek magazine.

From May: The new CNN is more opinionated and emotional. Can it still be ‘the most trusted name in news’?

Whitaker noted that Licht showed a knack for reframing brands at CBS’s morning show, where he signaled a renewed dedication to serious news.

“He ended up creating an interesting show, but it was very much in the spirit of what CBS stood for,” he said. “If he comes in at CNN and that’s his approach, that would be the right approach.”

In a memo to CNN employees on Monday morning, Zaslav described himself as a “news junkie at the core” and praised the network’s coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying they have fulfilled the original mission of its founder, Ted Turner, by building “the foremost newsgathering organization in the world.”

In his memo to CNN staff, Licht said he knows many are wondering how CNN will change. “The honest answer is that I don’t know yet,” he wrote. Zaslav, he said, wants him “to ensure that CNN remains the global leader in NEWS” and that they will “double-down on what’s working well and quickly eliminate what’s not.”

Since Zucker’s abrupt departure, CNN has been run by a trio of longtime executives, Michael Bass, Amy Entelis, and Ken Jautz. Each executive was considered a potential candidate for the role of president, though Zaslav ultimately decided to go with an outside pick.

CNN, which was briefly the most-watched network in cable news in January 2021, during a tumultuous presidential transition, has fallen back to third place when considering total average viewers. It still outperforms MSNBC in total day viewers among the 25-to-54 age demographic valued by advertisers.

But colleagues say when Licht expressed concern about taking a job that would throw him into a cutthroat ratings battle, Zaslav reassured him that he is more interested in bolstering CNN’s reputation — something that could be key as CNN launches a streaming service that will rely more on viewer subscriptions than advertising revenue.

CNN Plus, as the streaming service has been dubbed, is expected to launch by the end of March with shows built around several high-profile new hires, including former Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, former NPR “All Things Considered” co-host Audie Cornish and former MSNBC anchor Kasie Hunt.

One of Licht’s first big challenges will be filling the 9 p.m. slot that was vacated by former star anchor Chris Cuomo, who was fired by the network in December for crossing ethical lines to help his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, battle sexual misconduct allegations.

While Cuomo often took an emotional and opinionated edge, Licht has told people he appreciated that the show was infused with passion and unpredictability — and did not seem to cleave to one particular political perspective.

“That’s a huge decision and will say a lot,” said Josh Gropper, a television agent who previously worked in programming and content strategy at CNN.

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