Four months after joining CNN, CEO Chris Licht begins to reshape the cable news channel, with a Don Lemon-led morning show paving the way for a near-complete overhaul of the network’s lineup.
The most startling aspect of CNN’s morning show revelation was just how surprising it was.
CNN’s culture has been leaky for years, and important news has frequently found its way out. The morning shake-up, which would see Don Lemon depart at 10 p.m. for the mornings and be replaced by veteran anchor Poppy Harlow and White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins, surprised two CNN insiders The Hollywood Reporter talked with (some CNN staff were convinced Lemon would be shown the door by new management).
But perhaps it shouldn’t have. After all, after the deletion of Reliable Sources, Licht informed CNN staff on a daily editorial call that they should tune out reporting on the channel, and that no one outside of himself and a select group of CNN executives had any insight into their programming plans and strategy.
“Give it a minute, see what happens, and then provide comments,” he stated at the time.
The morning show news confirmed that there is a new sheriff in town.
However, it is Licht’s first significant new programming move since joining CNN in May.
While he has acquired a few new writers and parted ways with Brian Stelter, Jeffrey Toobin, and John Harwood, those moves were gambits, to use a chess word. An opening salvo that sets the tone for the main event. The game really begins with the new morning programme.
“This is not an incremental change,” Licht said in a message to staff outlining the morning show plans, emphasising that everything, from the set to the format, will be new, in addition to the talent in front of the cameras.
Indeed, since joining the cable news channel, Licht has made the morning show one of his major goals.
At the Warner Bros. Discovery upfront in May, just days after Licht officially started at the company, he announced that he would seek to “reimagine” mornings on CNN.
“We are seeking to be a disrupter to the broadcast morning shows in this space, and we believe we have the resources to do it,” Licht said.
It was no small claim, given Licht’s role in transforming the morning shows on both MSNBC (helping to create Morning Joe) and CBS This Morning, each of which have forged a different path than the entrenched morning programs, garnering loyal followings, if not first-place ratings.
But the real strategy behind Licht’s morning maneuvering is the opportunities it creates. Yes, the Lemon-led morning show is a top priority for CNN, but plucking him from primetime and Harlow from the morning news hours gives Licht a chance to reshape eight hours of CNN’s daily coverage in one fell swoop.
By the time he’s done, Licht will have transformed the 6-11 a.m. hours with new anchors and approaches, and reshaped primetime, which now has 9 and 10 p.m. wide open (not to mention 11 p.m., an hour in which CNN has vacillated between original programming and replays over the years).
The moves made in primetime will send the clearest message about Licht and Warner Bros. Discovery’s intentions for CNN. Lemon and former 9 p.m. anchor Chris Cuomo were known to take strong positions and have big takes on the day’s news. The new lineup, whatever form it takes, is unlikely to follow that model.
“[Warner Bros. Discovery CEO] David Zaslav has given me one simple directive: To ensure that CNN remains the global leader in NEWS as part of Warner Bros. Discovery,” Licht wrote to staff in his first memo after his hire was announced (emphasis on “news” his).
And that is just the weekday schedule. Licht has also telegraphed plans to overhaul Sundays, which will be capped off by Chris Wallace’s interview program and a newsmagazine show.
In short, expect there to be an entirely new CNN sooner than some might have predicted.
Up until the morning show shocker, much of the speculation around CNN’s future has sprung from its association with President Trump.
Some of the talent most critical of Trump exited, and of course the comments by libertarian investor John Malone (about wanting CNN to “evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with”) have spooked staff, who feared that unflinching coverage of the current state of politics could be branded as partisan.
But the morning show, which keeps Lemon not only in the picture but on a flagship show (albeit during a time slot that is considered less prestigious than primetime) suggests that Licht and his team still have some surprising moves to play.
Lemon, for his part, has been seeking some change of his own at CNN in recent months, according to a source, and the morning show presented that opportunity.
After the Reliable cancellation, Licht warned staff that “there will be more changes, and you might not understand it or like it.”
If CNN’s morning play is any indication, it is only the very beginning of the game. And there will be more surprises to come.