The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion CNN boss promises surprises in prime-time lineup

Chris Licht at the CNN Heroes All-Star Tribute at New York's American Museum of Natural History on Dec. 11. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
5 min

CNN’s executive suite these days is a riff-happy place. Among the hot topics is the network’s prime-time lineup, which has been in flux for a year, ever since the abruptly announced firing of 9 p.m. anchor Chris Cuomo.

CNN’s programming in this critical span, Chief Executive Chris Licht told the New York Times, is an “open canvas,” so his team is “throwing things against the wall, looking at off-the-beaten path opportunities.” The triple-mixed metaphor says it all: Licht & Co. are struggling with the intractable problem of how to square the CNN brand’s promise — straight news — with the entertainment imperatives of nighttime television. They’ll continue struggling, too, because there’s no way to accommodate both.

According to the Times, personalities in the fields of entertainment, comedy and sports have been batted around by CNN brass as possibilities for prime-time slots. Licht “declined to be more specific but promised surprises,” Times reporter James B. Stewart wrote.

“Surprises” are what get promised when your prime-time lineup is ailing. End-of-year Nielsen numbers showed that Fox News in 2022 drew more than three times the number of total viewers in prime time as did CNN (2.3 million to 730,000), which dropped 33 percent in this category. There was no surprise whatsoever in this news, considering that CNN’s cratering ratings have been a media storyline all year long.

Licht’s moves thus far, many of them subtractive, won’t draw brand-new audiences. He sacked chief media correspondent Brian Stelter and killed his Sunday program, “Reliable Sources”; he presided over the departures of legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin and veteran correspondent John Harwood; he announced layoffs that fell hard on paid contributors; and he reshuffled the CNN daily schedule, moving former prime-time anchor Don Lemon to the new program “CNN This Morning” along with Kaitlan Collins and Poppy Harlow.

All that qualifies as tinkering; hiring an entertainer for 9 p.m. would qualify as overhauling. In his pronouncements since taking the helm earlier this year, after all, Licht has preached a fundamental just-the-news ethic, a pivot from the anti-Trumpism that suffused the network throughout the term of the 45th president. Many have characterized Licht’s directives as seeking a “centrist” network, whatever that is. “At a time where extremes are dominating cable news,” Licht said at a spring CNN event. “We will seek to go a different way, reflecting the real lives of our viewers and elevating the way America and the world views this medium.”

Perhaps a comedy-entertainment-sports figure could deliver on this ambition. Trouble is, such an experiment could also deliver a programming disaster. Consider a scenario in which said entertainer was on air at the moment that an overseas war broke out, or an earthquake struck, or some statesperson died. Watching the network scramble to switch back into hard-news mode — well, that would surely be entertaining.

It’s hard to blame Licht for brainstorming about ways to lighten the prime-time coverage, considering the physics of a 24/7 news network. There are only so many stories worthy of beaming out to the entire country every day, and many of them are already stale by early evening. On Wednesday night, for example, CNN covered the congressional address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, along with the Jan. 6 committee’s wrap-up work and the brutal weather in the forecast — essentially the same topics everyone else was covering.

Remember: Before 1963, the major news networks needed just 15 minutes a night to round up the day’s headlines. Though we now live in a more complicated world, is it really 96 times more complicated?

By opting for some kind of soft “surprise” in prime-time schedule, Licht risks Foxifying a network that has defined itself in opposition to Rupert Murdoch’s national embarrassment. Roger Ailes founded Fox News, in part, on sleek news production values and catchy graphics, an ethic that has yielded in more recent years to straight-up entertainment offerings, such as the afternoon roundtable show “The Five” (the top-rated show in cable news for 2022) and “Gutfeld!,” the late-night talk show that has punctured the longtime dominance of traditional broadcast outlets in this niche.

The CNN archives furnish a recent example of just how badly such an experiment could go. In spring 2020, Cuomo hosted his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, for a series of chats about the pandemic, the Cuomo family and other fun stuff. “When [then-CNN Worldwide President] Jeff [Zucker] decided to have Andrew on, I believe it was the right call because the country was desperate and starved for comfort,” Chris Cuomo told Kara Swisher in an interview (transcript here). Chris Cuomo also said this: “When I did have him on, it was not about news.”

What was the result of this foray into not-news? It set in motion a chain of events that ended with Chris Cuomo losing his job and set the stage for Zucker’s departure as well. CNN’s brand as a purveyor of news also suffered. “Everybody lost,” said Chris Cuomo.

Just something to keep in mind as CNN ponders how it can juice the ratings. Licht appears conscious of the pitfalls: “It has to be compelling and entertaining without hurting the news brand,” he told the Times.