Chris Licht Talks Morning, Primetime Strategy, Replacing Jeff Zucker and Future of CNN

By A.J. Katz 

CNN chairman and CEO Chris Licht sat down with Kara Swisher on her Vox Media podcast for what ended up being a wide ranging interview.

Swisher, as is often the case, was able to elicit some revealing answers from her subject.

Here are some highlights from their chat:


Why Licht decided to join CNN

“As you know, I had no intention of leaving my current job with [CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen] Colbert, it was quite possibly the greatest job with the greatest person in the world [Stephen Colbert].

I am a journalist at heart, it is a calling. I know that sounds cheesy. But when I was at Colbert, I would get a job offers all the time, and they would go in one ear and out the other. This is the first thing that even stopped for a millisecond in my brain, and that is because [Warner Bros. Discovery chairman] David Zaslav had a vision for CNN and what it could be. I said, “Okay, I can execute that we’re on the same page here.” If I have that support, and —  we are entering a time in society, where a strong CNN is crucial, and if I could be part of that solution, then how do you say no to that? So for me, it was something made with my heart.”

Replacing Jeff Zucker

“Charismatic, beloved by talent, but also incredibly hands on, there’s nothing really happened without flowing through him, and that’s not how I operate. It’s just different. It’s not better. It’s just a different way of operating. But I stepped in not to be another version of Jeff, and so I’ve had to establish myself and my style.

This is a huge organization spread across across the globe, and I’m six months in and there’s still a little bit of muscle memory there. But I stepped into an organization run by a legend. Someone who I knew very well, another mentor of mine, I’ve known. I’ve known Jeff Zucker since I was an intern on the Today Show, and he’s someone I regularly spoke with. So for me, I stepped in with a humbleness for what he had done and built, but knowing that I had to forge my own way.”

Swisher asked Licht if he had spoken with Zucker recently. Licht replied in the affirmative, that there has only been one conversation, it “was private” it took place over the summer.

On notion that CNN is becoming more “centrist”

“I don’t think I’ve ever described what I want the editorial vision of CNN to be “centrist.” I think there is a place for prospective opinion, informed opinion programming in primetime. But, I think the dayside offering when we are on in professional offices and lawyers offices and all around the world, we need to report the news and pushback on both sides equally. But that doesn’t mean that we’ve been “centrist” can be really fit for whatever people’s purposes are. For me, it’s just take the editorial out of how we report down the middle news.”

Licht added that he felt CNN opinion programming had become more “aggressive” during the Trump years, and that had seeped into the dayside hours.

“I think what we have talked about is if you’re going to have a Republican Congressman on to talk about — like a good example is COVID relief.  The Republicans said that this was going to put too much into the economy and cause inflation, and the Democrats said if you were against this, you hated poor people. And I think you had to push back on both of those notions.”

The CNN chief noted he doesn’t like the term “woke” and also doesn’t want the network “to condescend to a view that doesn’t necessarily fit our worldview … but I’m not afraid for us to call bullshit when we need to call bullshit, and if you look at our election night coverage, we literally labeled people ‘election deniers’ as an adjective, just as you would call them an incumbent.'”

“I’m not looking at it through trying to appeal to more, lean into the left, or try to appeal to more people on the right. I think that’s not a good business model. Because you’re fighting for a bigger slice of a shrinking pie.

The competition for me in cable is not MSNBC, or Fox. Hopefully, what we’re doing is so different and unique that we’re attracting people who perhaps have found cable news to be irrelevant in their lives. So, the play is to not be offensive to a side, and perhaps they will come to us for an unvarnished truth to allow themselves to make their own decisions. And that’s a different brand.

My competition is frankly, Kathleen’s [Warner Bros. Discovery’ cable networks boss Finch], HGTV and Netflix. I’m fighting for people in down-news times. I’m fighting for people’s discretionary attention, and I don’t believe that the way to the future is to try to steal people from Fox.


Before getting Licht’s take on CNN+, Swisher disclosed that she was offered a show on the short-lived streamer, and turned it down. Licht then explains why the CNN+ was shut down so quickly:

“Can you imagine how you’d be grilling me today if we would be sitting here with a standalone streaming news service in the world that we are in that was budgeted to lose hundreds of millions of dollars this year? You would be like, ‘What are you doing? Why haven’t you shut it down?’ If you know something is not strategic, and you know that it’s not going to fit into your broader strategy, then why put another diamond to it? And that’s not to take away any of the work that was done. People worked really hard on those shows, and the fact that they stood up that many shows in that amount of time and it looked good. That’s not at all a disparagement of people in this building that killed themselves to get back on the air. So, it was not an easy decision from the standpoint of the people that affected, but it was a easy decision when it caught when it comes to the strategy.”

On Brian Stelter

I really like Brian, I’ve known Brian for a very long time. I want to do media coverage in a different way, and we have Sara Fischer, that we just brought over as a contributor, who still works for Axios.

My vision for media coverage is that it doesn’t really have a place on linear television on a weekly basis. I would rather do media analysis and coverage on our digital platform that reaches 180 million unique users, and when it makes sense to be on television, we put Oliver Darcy on or we put or we put Sara on.

Swisher followed up by asking Licht why part ways with Stelter altogether, especially considering the amount of time left on his contract. Licht’s response: “I don’t really want to get into the specifics on that. (long pause) I don’t think that’s fair to him.”

On Jake Tapper

“This was not an issue with his ratings, or whether the show was working or not, because it takes a lot longer than a few weeks to understand if a show is working. I think he did some really interesting things in that short amount of time. And part of it is, “hey, let’s try this until the end of the elections was – how’s this going to affect your life? That is a huge consideration. He was very clear that it was important for him to be home with his family and like I’m really grateful to him for leaving the very safe harbor of 4 p.m. and taking a chance and going out and doing this for for a short amount of time.  I’m very grateful to him and there was something there, but it has to work for everybody.”

On CNN This Morning

“After three weeks, we continue to grow so that to me is exciting. It takes a very long time for people to even know that we have a new morning show on.

I’m incredibly excited about that morning show because of what it is and the impact it’s already having and the guests that they book. I’m very bullish on that show, and it’s already beaten some of the competition twice in three weeks and that’s that’s pretty good [MSNBC Morning Joe in the A25-54 demo] …”

When asked why tackle a new morning program before a new primetime program, he responded:

“I start with mornings because it is a place that can set the tone for the rest of the day. If you get that right, by the end of the day it actually helps your prime time to get a good prime time, it helps your mornings. So it’s incredibly important. And put the three of them on. Those are three amazing talents that we have [Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow, Kaitlan Collins] and I think for me, it was a no brainer.

When asked why these three people:

They’re actual friends, and they all bring something different to the table, both in their expertise, their demographic and where they come from in the country. And as you know, what makes or breaks a show like that is the chemistry if you know that there’s chemistry. It’s going to take time for that chemistry to actually be on set, but if you if you actually know that the three of them have chemistry and are friends, and are good …

On Primetime

How Licht wants to tackle the daypart:

“Carefully and deliberately. I’m not I’m not going to rush anything on the air. First of all, speaking of Anderson [Cooper], he’s able to go two hours, and I have something really kind of fun and interesting at 10 and 11, which I want to see develop with Laura Coates and Alisyn Camerota. It’s more of a panel show.

As you can imagine, you throw a bunch of things against the wall, and you see what sticks. It takes time to really talk to people and develop and so we have some really exciting, interesting things that I hope will come to fruition and I hope that we’ll be able to announce in the not too distant future, but I’m not going to rush something on the air just for the sake of having something at 9 p.m. I really want it to stick.

Swisher asks Licht about considering talent from outside CNN, which he responds “yes.” She suggests Shep Smith, who is leaving CNBC. Licht seemed surprised by the thought of him in primetime. She asked about Gayle King, to which he responded, “she’s tied up, she can’t break her contract there … she’s too loyal.” And he confirmed Chris Cuomo will not be returning to CNN, at least not while he’s running the network.