CNN CEO Chris Licht is out, effective immediately

By Michael P. Hill Article may include affiliate links

Chris Licht is out as CEO and chairman of CNN Worldwide, effective immediately, ending a 13-month tenure that was marked with controversy, low-rated programming changes and internal grumblings.

The move was first reported by Dylan Beyers of Puck News and confirmed shortly after by The New York Times.

It was officially announced later in the day by Warner Bros. Discovery executive David Zaslav.

“I met with Chris and he will be leaving CNN,” Zaslav informed employees at the beginning of the June 7, 2023, editorial call. It was followed by an email memo to staff.

“This morning we are announcing that Chris Licht will be leaving CNN and we will be conducting a wide search, internally and externally, for a new leader,” the email read, in part.

It is not clear if Licht resigned or was fired or if he will receive any exit package.

Licht’s ouster comes on the heels of a lengthy article published by The Atlantic that was the result of reporter Tim Alberta getting wide access to Licht over the past few months. Many CNN employees were reportedly taken aback by the article and some of the comments Licht made, and he apologized to staff after its publication.

However, the article was simply the latest in a series of embarrassing reports centered around the network under Licht’s leadership.

In some ways, Licht’s tenure was cast even before it officially began. On April 21, 2022, just days before his official start date of May 2, 2022, he was at an announcement where new owners WBD announced it would shutter the much-hyped streamer CNN+ after what would turn out to be less than a month in operation. Licht was not directly involved in the majority of the development of CNN+, with much of that work having been completed before he was hired, but he did end up having to be the public face of the network when the decision was made.

Although not known to the general public, Licht also made the decision to convert previous CEO Jeff Zucker’s office into a conference room and move his space to another level, removed from most of the network staffers, as reported in The Atlantic piece.

In December 2022, Licht announced massive layoffs at the network. These cuts had been widely expected after the Discovery-WarnerMedia merger earlier in the year that created WBD as the new parent of the network.

Here again, much of the groundwork for these cuts was likely laid before Licht came on board, though he likely had at least some role in the final decision-making of who would be leaving.

Meanwhile, Licht’s major attempts to reshape the core of CNN — its broadcasts — feel flat. He oversaw the launch of “CNN This Morning” in November 2022 with co-anchors Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins.

The show was reportedly rushed on the air without the chance for a permanent set to be built for it, and failed to make any significant improvements in the ratings. Behind the scenes, there were multiple reports of infighting between talent, much of it reportedly at the hand of Lemon.

Lemon then made an on-air comment about presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s age and gender, sparking an on-air tiff and forcing him to apologize. Lemon would return to the show after Licht announced he would attend sensitivity training.

However, Lemon was later eventually fired from the network in April 2023. The network has not commented on the exact reasons for the firing, but it is widely believed to be connected to the publicized incidents.

Licht also oversaw changing the 9 p.m. hour to an hour-long block with a different anchor or host typically tackling a single newsworthy topic. Dubbed “CNN Primetime,” the shows were billed as “events” but often failed to attract viewers. The slot would eventually morph into a more traditional newscast filled with rotating anchors. In May 2023, Licht announced Collins would shift away from “CNN This Morning” to helm a yet-to-be-named show in the 9 p.m. hour. It was not immediately clear how Licht’s departure would affect this launch, which was slated for sometime in June 2023.

Finally, Licht also revamped the network’s morning and afternoon dayside programming under the name “CNN News Central,” using a video wall-heavy format inspired by the network’s special events coverage. This format has also failed to improve ratings significantly.

Licht’s latest, and perhaps most embarrassing decision, however, was a May 10, 2023, primetime town hall with Donald Trump. Moderated by Collins, the event was largely derided, including by CNN’s own media reporter Oliver Darcy. The event was labeled as nothing more than a free rally for Trump by some. The Atlantic article also went on to reveal that Licht had requested the audience at the event be more “Trumpy,” a decision that appears to have lead to audience members deriding Collins for trying to correct Trump’s repeated on-air lies and cheering after he made untrue statements.

Licht’s immediate departure means the network does not have a replacement in mind. Instead, WBD has announced that Amy Entelis, EVP of talent and content development, Virginia Moseley, EVP of editorial, Eric Sherling, EVP of U.S. programming, and David C. Leavy, chief operating officer, will lead the network until a permanent replacement is found.

Levy was recently announced as the new COO of CNN, with a start date of June 20, 2023. His hiring, along with Licht’s ongoing rocky road, prompted speculation earlier in June that Licht could be on his way out.

Licht replaced longtime CEO and media executive Jeff Zucker, who was ousted after failing to report a consensual relationship with another employee as required by company policy. Zucker was widely well regarded at the network, though his leadership had also been called into question after years of declining ratings and what some saw as increasingly partisan coverage.

WBD reportedly wanted the make the network more widely appealing by toning down the analysis and commentary that had become a mainstay on many of its programs, something that Licht was reportedly charged with handling. However, some of Licht’s comments to The Atlantic, including the more “Trumpy” audience one and criticism that the network had covered the COVID-19 pandemic too extensively prior to Licht joining, were seen as some by the network still being divisive.

Prior to CNN, Licht had been executive producer of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” where head helped build it to become the top late night show on network TV.

His cable news experience includes launching MSNBC’sMorning Joe,” which typically finishes in second place behind “Fox & Friends.” In between those jobs, he also lead the creation of a new version of “CBS This Morning” in 2012. That broadcast, which has since been renamed “CBS Mornings,” had a brief spike in the ratings but would remain mired in third place to this day.