The CNN image for the past few years has been embodied by passionate on-air personalities like Don Lemon or Brianna Keilar. These days, it might best be symbolized by beat reporters like Jamie Gangel or Kaitlan Collins.
Gone in recent weeks (for the most part) are what had become the network’s signature red-versus-blue showdowns between hot-talking contributors or segments that hinge on an anchor scolding an interviewee. This is the kind of stuff that typically gives cable-news a viral boost. In its place, CNN is trying something else: the news.
And it could guide what three people familiar with the network say will be some sort of recalibration of on-air talent that could become more apparent this fall.
“CNN seems to be moving back more toward straight news and away from some of the blatant opinion-mongering by its anchors that characterized its past few years,” says Mark Feldstein, chairman of the broadcast journalism department at University of Maryland, and a former CNN correspondent. Recent “First on CNN” scoops include stories on the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security telling the Secret Service to stop investigating missing texts related to the January 6 insurrection and First Lady Jill Biden’s press secretary leaving the White House.
CNN is just the latest news outlet under new early-stage management to swing out in a different direction. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s all the rage. Several U.S. TV news outlets are being operated by new senior executives who aren’t necessarily tied to history or heritage.
Indeed, CNN appears to be borrowing a page from CBS News, where co-president Neeraj Khemlani has been injecting new blood into the ranks in the form of correspondents like Robert Costa, formerly of The Washington Post, and Scott MacFarlane, who had been with WRC, NBC’s Washington, D.C. station. The mission at CBS News in recent months has been to land big scoops and ‘gets,’ with anchors doing both TV and streaming, and let the viral pass-along take care of itself. These things may not shake up the TV-ratings war in outsize fashion, but in a world where more people get their news via streaming video and social media, they may just get more of the clicks that drive digital ad dollars.
“CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell, for example, recently landed an exclusive interview with Dr. Caitlin Bernard, the Indiana doctor who treated a 10-year-old rape victim by providing abortion services. Costa in March worked with The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward to reveal that Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, texted then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and urged him to contest the 2020 presidential election results.
CNN’s new boss knows a thing or two about CBS News. He worked there for several years, to some noticeable effect. Chris Licht boosted CBS’ morning fortunes by getting new attention for its morning-news show, a perennial third place in the ratings. “CBS This Morning” didn’t beat rivals “Today” or “Good Morning America,” but it captured some white space in the battle for aficionados of newsy conversation that Licht has been fighting since he helped launch “Morning Joe” at MSNBC in 2007, and continued when he became showrunner of CBS’ “Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” which became more reliant on newsmakers than promotional appearances by movie stars. If you talk to executives who ran CBS at the time, gains at “CBS This Morning” and Colbert helped the economics of the network.
Now Licht has to make the strategy generate some new ratings. In the second quarter, CNN’s primetime viewership among people between 25 and 54 — the audience most coveted by advertisers in news programs — was off by 31%, compared with 40% for MSNBC and just 2% for Fox News Channel. He is likely to put more of an imprint on the outlet just as new opportunity beckons: The entire news sector is gearing up for the 2022 midterm elections, which will kick off the race for the White House in 2024. Both events tend to generate bigger audiences, and advertiser interest in connecting with them.
Licht didn’t create CNN’s current viewership downturn. He joined CNN officially in May, and cable news in general has suffered since Joe Biden was inaugurated as president in 2021. But he’s in the command chair now and has said the network is mulling a new Sunday block of programming that features Chris Wallace and a new newsmagazine-like program. Changes to CNN’s “New Day” morning show are believed to be in the works as well, potentially with a cadre of “friends” who can add to the A.M. dialogue. There is also speculation that CNN could shuffle its primetime personalities and their time slots, potentially injecting someone new into the mix. Executives may also be considering new combinations of talent for various programs as well as enlisting a group of people who will make semi-regular appearances on them.
While Licht may be taking some inspiration from CBS News and some of his past achievements, it’s NBCUniversal that might absorb some of his focus. When it comes to direct competition, only NBCU has the size and scope of CNN around the world. NBCU certainly appears to be focused on CNN. As CNN set about launching the ill-fated CNN+ streaming service, NBCU launched a large promotional campaign aimed at defusing some of the enthusiasm around the project (which, in hindsight, might just have worked)
Still, there’s no one solution for TV news chiefs, particularly when so many of them are new to the role and eager to shake up what they’ve inherited.
At NBCUniversal, News Group chief Cesar Conde is betting on a broader portfolio of initiatives. NBC News and its mainstay brands — “Today,” “NBC Nightly News,” “Meet The Press” — are trying to maintain linear audiences while creating new digital extensions, like moving the weekday version of “MTP” to streaming; going after audiences of lifestyle journalism with a digital counterpart to “Today”; and dialing up some direct-to-consumer initiatives at CNBC. At one of Conde’s news holdings, MSNBC, president Rashida Jones has overseen a pivot to more opinion and analysis, amid the departure of Brian Williams and a scaled-back on-air presence for Rachel Maddow.
Some news executives aren’t creating new things from whole cloth. At ABC News, president Kim Godwin is presiding over a shift in morning-news ratings. “Good Morning America” has for many recent weeks snatched victory in the 25-to-54 demo from “Today.” Insiders credit the moves to Simone Swink, whom Godwin named top producer of the show last year. And while CNN and NBC have made loud forays into streaming, ABC News has quietly tested the waters, making changes at “20/20” that play to audiences on Hulu, and giving correspondent Rebecca Jarvis room to roam in covering the Theranos debacle in podcast and docuseries form. The Disney unit recently launched ABC News Studios to fuel Disney’s streaming outlets, and one show in the pipeline will have George Stephanopoulos examine the upcoming midterm election along with important races and key issues.
While much of the attention at Fox News is placed on its opinion programming, the Fox Corp. network has created new formats and enlarged audiences for them. The most-watched show on cable-news in recent months has been the 5 p.m. panel show “The Five.” And Fox News has injected a similar concept at 11 p.m., where “Five” co-anchor Greg Gutfeld leads a late-night group.
Can CNN’s facts-first disposition stack up against competitive strategies that have already been at play for many months? Knowledgeable CNN beat correspondents like Manu Raju, Barbara Starr, Kara Scannell and Kylie Atwood will be under pressure to demonstrate it will.