Chris Licht, the wunderkind producer who launched “Morning Joe,” retooled “CBS This Morning” and helped late-night host Stephen Colbert gain traction on CBS, is jumping to CNN to take over the operation once its corporate parent, WarnerMedia, is acquired by Discovery in a much-anticipated merger expected to take place in April, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Licht could not be reached for immediate comment and a CNN spokesperson referred an inquiry to Discovery. A Discovery executive declined to comment. Executives at CBS, where Licht currently oversees “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and is an executive vice president involved with programming strategies, were not able to offer immediate comment. Puck previously reported the new deal, which is said to have been cemented by Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who lured Licht away from a growing development deal that Colbert and his senior team have put together with Paramount Global, CBS’ parent company.
A formal announcement could come as soon as next week, according to one of the people familiar with the situation. Licht is not likely to start in the new role for several weeks as he finishes the terms of his contract at CBS and its parent. A meeting was slated to take placed Saturday afternoon among staffers of CBS “Late Show,” according to a person familiar with the program. A “Late Show” spokesperson could not be reached for immediate comment.
In hiring Licht, Zaslav has lured an executive with qualities similar to Jeff Zucker, the former CNN chief whose facility with talent and news production lent CNN new relevance in recent years. Licht has worked closely with everyone from Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski to Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King, and has developed a sort of middle-lane format that mixes serious reportage with the lighter fare one needs to succeed in both morning TV and the medium’s late-night wars. Under his aegis as showrunner, CBS has usurped NBC as the backer of the nation’s most-watched late-night program, with a formula that often has Colbert speaking with top newsmakers as much as he does movie actors and rock stars. Licht will not take over WarnerMedia’s sports operations, which had also previously reported to Zucker, according to the two people.
The new chief will face heady challenges as well. His predecessor, Zucker, was ousted earlier this month after failing to disclose a personal relationship with Allison Gollust, CNN’s former chief marketing officer. News staffers, who developed strong ties that executive over the past decade as CNN became a regular target of the Trump administration, have been demoralized by his ouster, as well as the firing of former primetime anchor Chris Cuomo. CNN is poised to launch a new streaming-video service, CNN Plus, but there are questions about whether Discovery, which has strong roots in unscripted and documentary-style programming, sees the need for such a stand-alone service. “We will in the next in the near-term, sit down and get a have a real business plan. discussion with the people that CNN and CNN Plus,” Zaslav said in a call with investors earlier this week. “We haven’t had that yet.”
Indeed, while Licht has run sizable TV operations, he has never commanded a structure as big as CNN, a WarnerMedia unit that has in recent years generated over $1 billion in profit and has become as key to the financials of WarnerMedia as Fox News has to its own parent, Fox Corporation. CNN isn’t only a series of U.S. news programs. It also has a significant international operation and a large affiliate business that puts its news footage on local stations. CNN also includes HLN, the cable network that has struggled to find an identity in recent years.
Under Zucker, CNN took on more voice, growing beyond its long identity as a vanilla dispenser of down-the-middle news reportage. Anchors have been encouraged to offer analysis and opinion, and even get passionate about the top stories of the day. Discovery is expected to make changes, potentially placing renewed emphasis on boots-on-the-ground reportage. “There’s no organization, news organization in the world that looks like CNN, that can do what CNN does. I think it becomes very clear as you go around the world and you look at other news channels that are where people are sitting behind desks and giving their opinion about what’s going on,” Zaslav said during the recent investor call, talking about CNN’s coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “There’s a news network that’s on the ground with journalists in bulletproof vests and helmets that are doing what journalists do best, which is fight to tell the truth in dangerous places so that we all can be safe and we can assess what’s going on and what’s dangerous in the world.”
CNN and its rivals have long thrived as sources of go-to information and, increasingly, hot-talk opinion about the trending news of the day. But in the world of streaming video, their dominance faces new challenges. The networks have seen viewership decline in the wake of the end of the runup to the 2020 election and the aftermath of the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. CNN’s primetime viewership among people between 25 and 54 — the demographic most favored by advertisers — was off 46% in 2021, according to Nielsen. MSNBC’s was down by 38% and Fox News Channel’s declined by 41%. All three networks are expected to shed subscribers in 2022, according to Kagan, the market-research firm that its part of S&P Global Intelligence, as consumers move away from traditional cable and satellite subscriptions.
All the traditional TV news outlets save CNN have launched streaming counterparts. Now Licht will have to navigate keeping the cash flows that still come from TV while securing the ones that news junkies of the future will crave.