After a year of chaos, CNN bets on new CEO Thompson to focus on long-term viability

When Chris Licht, the former CEO of CNN, assumed leadership of the news organization last year, he was tasked by his superior, David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, with a clear mission: to overhaul the network\’s programming and tone, shifting the emphasis away from \”advocacy\” journalism and towards straightforward news reporting.

However, following Licht\’s departure, the incoming CEO of CNN, Mark Thompson, is embarking on a different, as-yet-undefined mission. Thompson, who is set to take on his new role on October 9, has initiated preliminary discussions with Zaslav and other key members of CNN\’s leadership team to explore strategic concepts and priorities. These discussions have remained confidential, and those involved have refrained from making public statements. Thompson has made a deliberate choice not to make concrete decisions about CNN\’s operations until he has the opportunity to meet with the staff and gain a deep understanding of the organization\’s inner workings, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Nonetheless, certain areas of focus for Thompson are beginning to take shape. He intends to place a strong emphasis on developing digital subscription initiatives centered around and crafting content tailored to a younger audience for CNN Max, the live news service offered on Warner Bros. Discovery\’s \”Max\” streaming platform, as confirmed by two sources.

In contrast, Chris Licht\’s background primarily revolved around television programming. He was renowned for launching programs such as \”Morning Joe\” on MSNBC and \”CBS This Morning,\” featuring prominent anchors. Initially recruited by Zaslav as a television programmer, Licht ultimately faced termination due to a loss of confidence among employees and challenges in achieving strong ratings.

Licht\’s relatively brief tenure, spanning just over a year, was primarily focused on depoliticizing CNN. Both Zaslav and Licht shared the goal of repositioning the network as politically neutral, shedding its perception as leaning left, to appeal to a broader audience encompassing both Democrats and Republicans. Following Licht\’s departure, a four-person team composed of Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, Eric Sherling, and David Leavy took the helm of CNN and initiated significant overhauls of the network\’s linear programming, including the introduction of a new morning show and a revamped prime-time lineup.

Licht\’s leadership approach, marked by a hands-off style intended to distinguish him from his predecessor Jeff Zucker, encountered challenges in gaining the support of CNN employees. Zaslav believed that Licht\’s decision-making process was too slow, and he struggled to connect with CNN\’s talent. Licht, on the other hand, found it challenging to be his authentic self while adhering to Zaslav\’s directive to be a no-nonsense leader tasked with reshaping CNN\’s image and reducing costs. As part of a broader workforce reduction at Warner Bros. Discovery, Licht was also tasked with overseeing layoffs affecting hundreds of employees.

In contrast to Licht\’s focus on linear programming, Mark Thompson\’s primary goal is to ensure CNN\’s sustainability over the next five years, a timeline that has already been discussed with some members of CNN\’s leadership. According to sources familiar with the thinking of Warner Bros. Discovery executives, the task of altering CNN\’s reputation has largely been accomplished.

The issue of how to cover Donald Trump, a defining challenge during Licht\’s tenure, is likely not among Thompson\’s top five priorities as he assumes his new role. Existing CNN executives believe they have the necessary infrastructure in place to effectively handle coverage of the former president and current Republican primary candidate as the 2024 election season intensifies.

Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, Eric Sherling, and David Leavy all intend to remain at CNN under Thompson\’s leadership, with each of them reporting to him. A CNN spokesperson has declined to provide comments regarding speculations about Thompson\’s future actions and strategies.

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