Analysis: How This Image Signaled Beginning of the End of the Licht Era at CNN

By Mark Mwachiro 

This image and the sentences contained within the tweet posted by The Washington Post’s media reporter, Jeremy Barr, right before the start of CNN’s controversial Donald Trump live town hall back in May were very ominous particularly the last part, “Will be curious to see how they are feeling afterward.”

That picture contained two people in all smiles, now-former CNN CEO and chairman Chris Licht and CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins, whose career trajectories and destinies were going to be defined by the very outcome of that particular town hall.

Should they successfully conquer the Trump Behemoth, the sky is the limit for all they and CNN can do. Failure would take various forms – should Collins be railroaded, she and Licht would look bad. Should she hold her own or attempt to hold her own against Trump, then the damage to her will be slight with the focus turned towards Licht.

Sadly, the latter is how things played out for Licht, culminating with his dismissal from CNN on Wednesday morning. The end of a 13-month run as the head of CNN, filled with more rough edges than smooth ones.

Licht had the unenviable task of shutting down the just launched CNN+, a move he executed before his official start date and one that quickly put him at a disadvantage with CNN staffers recovering from the unexpected ouster of the well-liked former CEO Jeff Zucker.

In the following months, the defections of numerous executives signaled to the staffers that the new regime would be different, and the rosy days of the Zucker era would be quickly sun-setted.

Licht would keep a majority of Zucker’s executives, bringing very few of his own people on board, like Chris Marlin, and adding a new PR and digital executive to fill the holes left after the departures of Allison Gollust and Andrew Morse.

Continuity from that perspective made sense, but many of these people were still Zucker loyalists, and asking them to execute a new vision for the network that ran against what they believed was a tall order.

When Licht inherited CNN, the network was already hemorrhaging viewers. It did see a rise in viewership at the onset of the Ukraine/Russia war in early 2022, but that soon subsided once it became apparent that it would be a long onslaught.

But all this happened before Licht joined CNN, and the ratings slide trend continued once he was there. He tried his best to juice things up with the launch of CNN This Morning and having it helmed by Don Lemon.

Lemon is now gone, and the program is in flux, as the other co-anchor, Collins, has moved over to primetime and left Poppy Harlow alone.

He was slow to address the gaping hole at 9 p.m. ET letting it stay without a permanent host for well over a year until he named Collins as the permanent host just last month.

One wonders whether the King Charles show will continue moving forward now that Licht is no longer there.

On the other hand, the bright spot during this entire debacle was the launch of CNN News Central and The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper. These are shows Licht can be proud of during his brief tenure.

When he started at CNN, Licht assured staff that the network would not be subjected to the layoffs rampaging through the other Warner Bros. Discovery divisions. He would have to eat those words, leading to more distrust within the ranks, as WBD mandated layoffs at the network, which saw the exit of many tenured figures and the ending of HLN in December of 2022.

Ending Robin Meade’s Morning Express was a big misstep for Licht. The long-running morning show had a loyal audience and a comfortable position within the morning TV hierarchy, and fit the “centrist” mode WBD executives were demanding of the new CNN.

It would have been better for him to move the show to CNN rather than launch a new one from scratch, thereby exposing Morning Express to a larger audience and enabling him to give primetime the proper attention it needed.

Then came the Trump town hall; this was the beginning of the end of the Licht era. His failure to properly acknowledge the damage hosting the town hall had done to the network and his belief that history would look kindly on it made his relationship with staffers tenuous and showed him to be disengaged with the realities.

We’ll never know why Licht thought providing unfettered access to Tim Alberta from The Atlantic during his rocky first year would be the right call and show him in a positive light. That profile bought his one-way ticket out of CNN the day it was published, ironically a day after a new COO, David Leavy was brought in to assist him, a new graphics package and promotional campaign debuted, and staffers in its Atlanta office congregated and celebrated the last waning moments of CNN being based at the CNN Center.

The wunderkind producer who worked magic on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and CBS’ CBS This Morning, and then took his talents over to late night to resuscitate The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, being given the job of managing a global news organization proved to be too daunting of a task.

Managing CNN takes work. It’s an enormous news operation that just doesn’t comprise its domestic linear channel, even though it is the one that is constantly in the spotlight. It requires managing an international channel, a news gathering operation with bureaus located around the world, a Newsource division that distributes CNN content to affiliate stations worldwide, affiliate networks that have licensed the CNN brand, a digital unit that has a website that ranks as one of the most visited in the world, with 626.1 million visits in April, and other internal divisions that hum along outside of the glaring media spotlight.

All of this is CNN.

Licht, who is used to managing staff in the double-digit range, did not have the skill set to run such an organization. That was WBD’s David Zaslav’s first mistake. He did not take the time to find a suitable executive to run the network instead tasking Licht with that responsibility.

His second was not letting Licht independently run the network. As illustrated by his self-immolating 15,000-word profile from The Atlantic, Licht was a proxy for Zaslav. He was communicating and executing the will of his micromanaging boss.

Now Zaslav has indicated that he will take an intentional approach to find the network’s next CEO, saying that WBD will run “a thoughtful and thorough search for a new leader.”
Had he done that in the first place, CNN would not have been put in this position, having to endure a second consecutive year with no functional, steady leadership at a time cable TV is quickly losing its relevancy and the network not having a concrete plan about how it is approaching the streaming era.

All this is happening just as the 2024 presidential race is starting to pick up.

This year was shaping up to be Fox News’ annus horribilis due to what happened during the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit and settlement, the many other impending lawsuits that are on the horizon, the axing of Tucker Carlson, and the loss of viewers in primetime as result of his exit.

CNN could not let them have it.

Knowing how things have played out since that picture was taken, I am sure Licht is no longer all smiles.


**This is an analysis piece.**