CNN’s Chris Licht Had a ‘Golden Touch’ in Morning and Late Night. Now Comes His Biggest Challenge

Chris Licht Late Show
Courtesy of CBS

If it wasn’t for Chris Licht, you might not see Gayle King on TV every weekday morning.

King wasn’t the typical host of a national morning-news show. She had worked for nearly two decades at a Hartford TV station before trying her hand at daytime TV. When Licht, who was starting a new morning program for CBS News, gave her a call, King was in her 50s and hadn’t worked the same ladder as most of her contemporaries in A.M. television. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t even be at CBS,” King said in an interview. Today, she is the center of CBS’ morning-news programming, which seeks to be more serious and offer a deeper take on topics than its competitors at ABC and NBC. “The core of what we are doing here hasn’t changed,” says King. “Chris set the template for that.”

Licht will have the chance to develop new models when he takes on his largest, most daunting role yet: CEO of CNN Global — a new name for the venerable cable news outlet known for decades as just ‘CNN.’ Discovery on Monday confirmed that Licht expected to start that role in May, after the company acquires WarnerMedia, and will report directly to Discovery CEO David Zaslav.

The CNN gig is the latest stop on a fascinating TV career that began in local TV (at Los Angeles’ KNBC, just as the O.J. Simpson news cycle began), and later put Licht in the middle of launching “Morning Joe” for MSNBC, retooling CBS’ morning efforts, and most recently, helping Stephen Colbert and the Eye network achieve new goals in late-night, a daypart previously dominated by NBC, with “The Late Show.”

Licht, who declined to comment for this story, has done all of these things by studying the TV landscape and figuring out what audiences at home aren’t getting — then determining how to help the people making TV shows deliver those goods. “The big thing he focuses on is a point of differentiation,” says Ryan Kadro, chief content officer at the politics and news site TheRecount, who helped Licht launch “CBS This Morning” and succeeded him as executive producer. “What will get the audience that is not watching to get into the process?”

The results haven’t always put Licht’s programs at the top of the pecking order, but they have attracted new audiences, allowing networks to charge advertisers higher prices and push bigger crowds elsewhere in the schedule.

Licht’s process, likes and dislikes are about to become the focus of study of hundreds of staffers at CNN. He will now become of the nation’s most influential news executives, helping to determine what millions of people talk about every day and overseeing an operation that has in recent years thrown off more than $1 billion in profit annually. CNN encompasses not only a massive U.S. newsgathering force, but a tremendous international operation, the cable channel HLN, a large digital-news unit, and an affiliate business that puts its video in the feeds of dozens of local stations. On a more challenging front, CNN has also become a target of Republicans, who feel the network has veered away from its down-the-middle news positioning and embraced a sort of “resistance” brand that it never demonstrated in its earlier history.

Licht has never commanded such a large operation, but as Kadro points out, he never ran a broadcast morning show before he oversaw “CBS This Morning” and never worked at a late-night program before forming his alliance with Colbert. “He likes to be challenged,” says Kadro. “I think he likes the outsized expectations.”

He has met them — so far.

Licht was working as a top producer on the MSNBC program “Scarborough Country,” anchored by former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, in the middle of the last decade when that network faced a crisis. Its long-running morning program, a simulcast of Don Imus’ radio show, was scuttled amid a growing controversy over racist remarks made by the host on his program about the Rutgers University womens’ basketball team. A handful of influential advertisers — Procter & Gamble and General Motors among them — wanted nothing to do with the show any longer. Suddenly, the network had a big opening that it needed to fill, and fast. The result was happenstance. Scarborough agreed to take a shot at an A.M. effort and was joined by Mika Brzezinski, a freelance anchor delivering cut-in news segments. After some time spent with screenwriter John Ridley as a co-host, Willie Geist was brought in, and the trio began to develop a rapport. “I didn’t know Mika when we started. I knew Joe a little bit,” Geist told Variety in 2020.

Behind the scenes was Licht, who understood viewers weren’t getting a morning program focused largely on the ins-and-outs of Washington with a roundtable format. Imus provided some of that, but “Morning Joe” removed some of his other elements while burnishing what those audiences continue to crave. “The format is like a radio show. We are just sitting around with friends talking and ad libbing, reacting to each other,” Geist said. “It’s in the people. It’s in the chemistry.” The show, which has turned the now-married Scarborough and Brzezinski into celebrities, has also gained new attention for regulars ranging from Mike Barnicle to Katty Kay.

When Licht moved to CBS to try his hand at broadcast mornings, he encountered a lot of skepticism. King recalls going with Charlie Rose and Erica Hill, the show’s original co-anchors, to screen “Moneyball,” the 2011 movie about, as King describes it, “an underdog team that made good, an unlikely team.” Unlike “Good Morning America” and “Today,” “CBS This Morning” avoided cooking segments and Halloween costumes. When the show picked up celebrity stories, it tried to treat them with a degree of earnestness, and also presented segments about business and foreign affairs. Apple earnings might be cause for a  segment on “CBS This Morning,” and likely not at its rivals.

Then came Licht’s career pivot, going from news to entertainment as executive producer of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” At its launch, Colbert was not only the host, he was running the show on his own and even doing the voice-overs during the program’s intro. Licht worked to figure out how Colbert could focus on things he did best, like interview newsmakers and develop topical comedy. Rival broadcast shows hosted by Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel relied heavily on comedic field segments and celebrity games and pranks. “[Licht] came in and said, ‘You guys are really great about talking about the thing that just happened with urgency. With immediacy. With sharp jokes,” Colbert recalled in a 2016 interview with Variety, in remarks that have previously not been published. “Do that as hard as you can, and let’s see what happens.”

Licht has been recently compared with his predecessor at CNN, Jeff Zucker. Both men found their reputations turbocharged by stints on high-profile, national morning TV shows. Both jumped to entertainment, learning an entirely new skillset in the process, before moving back to news. And both have displayed a facility for developing ties with talent. But Licht doesn’t have the same yen for micromanaging that Zucker has, according to people who have worked with him. He brought “a clarity of organization: What is everybody’s lane?” said Colbert.

Ultimately, however, Licht is in charge, though he brings people into the process. “He and I had some, shall we say, feisty exchanges, where we would have to go to our corners after we didn’t agree, but I never felt disrespected or belittled,” says King. “There is a skill to that.” She says he also has a “great bulls–t detector, which he uses very liberally and he doesn’t mind calling B.S. when he sees B.S.” Kadro expects Licht to conduct a listening tour of CNN at first, trying to get a read on what is happening and how people work, and then work to align employees around a “north star.”

What Licht has been successful at in recent years is finding a sort of middle-lane format that mixes that mixes serious reportage with the lighter fare necessary to succeed in both morning TV and the medium’s late-night wars.  “I think you run into a problem when you start to be elitist and look down on the news and trying to decide what news is,” Licht told Variety in 2015. “News is news.”

He will likely push CNN to own big stories and try new things. He played a role in getting “Late Show” producers to take on sending Colbert to Russia in 2017 and trying live broadcasts after significant news events like the Democratic and Republican national conventions or a State of the Union speech. “We have an ambition for how good our comedy can be. He has an ambition for where it can be applied, and what it can be about, or what we can be talking about, and that’s been a really nice partnership,” Colbert said.

Licht’s next partner, Discovery’s Zaslav, may have even bigger ambitions than Licht –and will be counting on the executive to continue the intriguing streak he’s already cut through the industry. “I think he has a golden touch,” says King.