Gone is CNN’s ubiquitous “Breaking News” banner, now reserved for truly urgent events. On-screen sarcastic captions – “Angry Trump turns briefing into propaganda sessionfor example – are discouraged. Political shows are trying to book more conservative voices, and producers have been told to ignore Twitter backlash from the far right and far left.
A month into his tenure as head of CNN, Chris Licht is beginning to leave his mark on the all-news network he inherited in May from former president Jeff Zucker. So far, the Licht Doctrine is a change from the days of Zucker: less hype, more nuance, and a redoubled effort to reach viewers of all stripes.
Managing a network is a new challenge for Mr. Licht, a 50-year-old producer who has never run an organization as large as CNN. (His last employer, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” had about 200 employees; CNN has about 4,000.) No good, very bad year.
In December, presenter Chris Cuomo was fired for ethical breaches, sparking an investigation that ultimately led to Mr Zucker being ousted in February for an undisclosed relationship with a colleague. Then, in April, the network’s new owners, Warner Bros. Discovery, shut down streaming platform CNN+ weeks after its $300 million debut. On the same day, Mr Licht announced the prospect of hundreds of redundancies in his first official address to staff.
Under Mr. Zucker, a micromanager who dictated headlines and whispered into presenters’ ears during interviews, the network developed an “Audience of One” culture. “What Jeff Wants” was the mantra, and it often meant spectacle and drama. Mr. Licht is now tearing up this playbook with a particularly different management style from his predecessor.
“I’m not here to go into the details of day-to-day editorial decision-making,” Mr. Licht told employees on the first day. His more passive approach to coverage and his sweeping statements that CNN will “challenge the traditional philosophy of cable news,” have left his skeptics wishing for more specific direction from the top, not less.
Mr. Licht’s initial movements and the mood inside the network were described by several people with knowledge of CNN’s internal dynamics who would speak only on condition of anonymity.
Mr. Licht is aware of the criticism. “I will be making decisions slower than some would like,” he wrote in a newsroom-wide memo on Thursday. “I know this organization has gone through tremendous change over the past four months, which is why I am approaching this process slowly and thoughtfully as we consider all parts of the operation.” (CNN declined to comment.)
An early focus was morning programming, an area Mr. Licht knows well from overseeing “Morning Joe” and his successful revamp of “CBS This Morning.”
Mr Licht told advertisers he wanted to ‘disrupt’ morning television. Internally, he said he wanted a more inviting conversational approach, and he thinks CNN’s main offering, “New Day” – which Mr. Zucker created – lacks a clear identity, said three people.
In the coming weeks, he wants to create a list of “friends of the show” who would make regular appearances on the program, the people said. Among those being considered is Audie Cornish, the former NPR host who was to host a show on CNN+.
Mr Licht also wants to revamp the Sunday night lineup, introducing a new talk show from former Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, as well as a new long-running newsmagazine program.
Mr. Licht intends to roll back partisanship on the airwaves, telling advertisers last month, “In an age where extremes dominate cable news, we will look to take a different path.” At a recent meeting in Washington with producers and reporters, Mr. Licht said he wanted to engage more Republicans and conservatives on political shows to offer a wider range of viewpoints. Internally, he praised Dana Bash’s recent gun control interview with Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Texas.
In some ways, Mr. Licht is working to undo the showman-like tendencies that Mr. Zucker, a former producer of the “Today” show, has baked into CNN’s DNA during his nine years in office.
Mr. Zucker has placed sports-style microphones on pundits and encouraged political anchors like Jim Acosta to adopt contradictory reporting on Donald J. Trump, leading to coverage that could look like advocacy. Oversized groups of partisan guests made up the moral dudgeon every night.
“It was so strong,” said Peter Hamby, a former CNN correspondent and columnist at Puck, who writes about the changes in cable news. “They found a new outrage every day. It was difficult for audiences to separate what was truly an emergency and what was a ratings ploy.
Zucker’s approach had advantages. CNN had its most profitable and highest-rated years under his tenure, although viewership fell sharply after Mr Trump left. Many presenters felt deeply loyal to Mr. Zucker, who stood up for his team amid attacks from Mr. Trump, death threats and even pipe bombs sent to CNN offices. After Mr. Zucker’s exit, presenter Don Lemon delivered a tearful farewell, saying, “We have lost a man who was the backbone, the glue and the spirit of this company.”
Some CNN producers and reporters have taken to waiting for specific instructions from Mr. Zucker. Mr. Licht is less inclined to micromanage, an approach that matches his production philosophy in his previous jobs. Mr Licht told his associates he preferred to give MPs the power to make decisions themselves, although mistakes can sometimes occur.
On-air journalism is just one aspect of Mr. Licht’s new role; he must also ensure that the network makes money. With declining ratings on cable, Mr. Licht told his colleagues that strengthening CNN’s reputation as a fair news group will help attract prime advertisers.
With little experience running a corporate network, Mr. Licht turned to outside help: Chris Marlin, a decades-long friend and business executive who recently worked at Lennar, the builder of homes giant based in Florida. Mr. Licht met Mr. Marlin, who grew up in a trailer park in Arkansas, when he was 17 at a conference in Washington for high school students.
Mr. Marlin, who scours the network for new revenue streams, proved an object of curiosity and unease at CNN. Some employees took to calling him “Fish Man”, a take-off on his maritime surname. His ideas so far include expanding CNN Underscored, a consumer-focused shopping guide, and expanding the CNN brand into overseas markets like China.
For CNN daily viewers, the clearest sign that the network is under new management may be what’s no longer on their television screens.
According to a new entry in the CNN Standards Guide, obtained by The New York Times, a story must qualify as “stop what you’re doing and watch the news” to earn the “Breaking News” label. Even then, according to the guide, the label should only appear onscreen for an hour, unless there’s a live-action story that unfolds like a school shooting, a major hurricane. or the death of a world leader.
“Its impact has been lost on audiences,” Mr. Licht wrote in his memo, adding that CNN should “focus on informing, not alarming our viewers.”
Benjamin Mullin contributed report.