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CNN Plans Major Daytime Overhaul With ‘Newsroom Headquarters’ Concept (EXCLUSIVE)

Chris Licht CNN
Courtesy of CBS

CNN anchors may want to start going to the gym, because they could have a new workout in store.

The Warner Bros. Discovery-backed news outlet intends to roll out a new, kinetic on-air format that will take many of its personnel out of the usual position of sitting behind desks and instead aim to generate more energy on camera by having some of the network’s real-time newsgathering on full display. The new presentation will be utilized during many of the network’s daytime hours, says Chris Licht, CNN’s chairman and CEO, who indicated in an interview that he plans to unveil a significantly revamped daytime schedule around the end of the first quarter and the start of the second quarter this year.

“The goal we have is to take an incredible newsgathering operation that has so much information coming in at all hours from all over the world, and, in an authentic way, reflect that energy on air,” Licht told Variety.

During last week’s coverage of the election of the U.S. Speaker of the House, CNN superimposed its anchors over scenes of the news, such as a look at the U.S. Capitol or at the scrum going on among members of Congress. Interplay between studio anchors and correspondents in the field was more pronounced and fluid. Licht has been impressed by the reaction. During certain hours of key coverage, CNN drew larger audiences than its rivals among viewers between 25 and 54, the demographic most coveted by advertisers in news programming. What’s more, CNN’s bookings last week included many Republican lawmakers — a goal for Licht, who has worked to cull CNN’s roster of paid contributors in favor of engaging more with actual people making news.

“Our anchors are journalists, and some of the excitement and energy you saw was from people sitting on the set and reporting as they were anchoring,” says Licht. The executive offered few granular details about his plans for daytime, but people familiar with discussions believe CNN might consider a “newsroom headquarters” concept that features multiple personnel on screen at once, many of them not situated behind a traditional desk or station.

The plans would affect many hours between 9 a.m. — after the wrap of CNN’s new morning program — and 4 p.m., and some of the concepts are likely to turn up in late-afternoon programming as well. “Everything is on the table,” says Licht. “We are really starting from scratch.”

Licht is working to move on from a heavily scrutinized year during which parent Warner Bros. Discovery scuttled an ambitious streaming-video hub called CNN+, then mandated staffing cuts at its news business as it grappled with massive amounts of debt it took on in order to buy up the former Time Warner portfolio from AT&T. CNN’s total day viewership among people between 25 and 54 in 2022 fell 35%, but it was bigger than MSNBC’s, though smaller than that of Fox News.

As a result, Licht’s early tenure at CNN — he joined in the Spring — has come under intense scrutiny. Each move, whether it be cutting back on acquired documentary productions or moving Don Lemon to mornings, has generated reams of coverage. Even decisions about when to use “breaking news” graphics on screen or whether anchors should be able to drink alcohol on camera during New Year’s Eve have spurred industry-wide chatter and debate.

“I would expect nothing less,” Licht says of being under a microscope. “It’s a very important job.”

He has kept his eye on “a really basic mission, a very pure of heart mission” of focusing on CNN’s journalism. He has worked alongside CNN’s senior executives as well as a group of executive producers in recent weeks to come up with new ways to present the organization’s massive newsgathering resources. A consensus has built around “stripping it down to the core, showcasing what’s best — a full-blown newsgathering operation on TV.”

Licht has enjoyed a unique TV career, helping to launch new morning-news formats like MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and a revamped “CBS This Morning” for CBS News. More recently, he helped Stephen Colbert on CBS’ “The Late Show,” focusing on making fun of the latest news of the day and on interviews with top newsmakers. The executive says he’s trying to do something similar at CNN, albeit on a larger scale. “You have the best success when you allow talent to be their authentic selves,” Licht says. The plan for the new daytime format “allows CNN to be its authentic self.”

The CNN chief says 2022 marked a period of “setting ourselves up for a building year in 2023,” and reaffirmed the network’s commitment to launching a Sunday-night newsmagazine, first announced during last year’s upfront, and desire to launch new primetime concepts as well.

Daytime, however, will come first. “What we do in the daytime may not be where the money is, but it is absolutely where the reputation is,” says Licht, simply because many viewers tune in when big news breaks and others leave the network on all day. “The look and feel of CNN during daytime is what people equate with CNN.”

Showing anchors without a traditional desk would make CNN look very different from its competitors, something that Licht thinks is necessary. “What we do is very different, so the presentation is different,” he says.

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