Trump Return Marks Moment of Reckoning for CNN

moving CNN to the center
Variety Intelligence Platform; Adobe Stock

It’s 721 days until a new U.S. president is picked, but Election Day might as well be tomorrow for cable news.

Donald Trump’s long-awaited declaration of intent to regain the White House fired the starting pistol for campaign season. This is the period when the fortunes of the 24-hour news networks will be decided.

That puts immense pressure on CNN, which has foundered lately as its new CEO, Chris Licht, tries to pump a pulse back into the Warner Bros. Discovery-owned network. How low CNN has sunk hit home last week on midterms night, when MSNBC bested CNN for the first time ever, and Fox News Channel had more audience than MSNBC and CNN combined.

The last time Trump ran for president, CNN found its identity under Licht’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker, with a stridently skeptical tone, a magnet for outraged Democrats. But now that it is answering to a different parent company, Licht’s marching orders are to stake a more centrist position, which a recent exclusive VIP+ survey discovered is already registering with viewers.

How CNN treats Trump this time around will be crucial to regaining ratings momentum. But the centrist stance raises the question of whether the network will be too busy trying not to alienate anyone on either side of the aisle to even make its mark.

Time is of the essence here as well, given the possibility that Trump may not be around as long as he was in the run-up to 2016, with stiff competition in the form of Ron DeSantis on the horizon.

Lucky for Licht, WBD is expressing its patience with CNN, with CEO David Zaslav going so far as to suggest he’s not even sweating the ratings.

Of course, you have to wonder whether, when Zaslav pledged to be unconcerned with audience numbers, he had any idea how low CNN would sink.

Unfortunately for Licht, the on-air changes he’s made have yet to move the needle. Plugging Jake Tapper into the 9 p.m. slot for a trial run didn’t work, nor did replacing Wolf Blitzer with him on midterms night. And moving Don Lemon out of primetime to anchor a new morning show hasn’t helped either time period.

What’s worse is low morale at CNN is likely to drop even more once Licht has to make $100 million in cuts that will mean mass layoffs. The pain may spread to the rest of WBD judging from the dim view Zaslav took at an investor conference this week of the company’s future as the ad market collapses.

The road ahead for CNN won't get easier anytime soon. But if ever there was a time when the network had an opportunity to garner newfound buzz, it’s now.