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Incoming CNN boss Chris Licht has a lot of challenges on his plate as he prepares to take over the beleaguered network, but a former producer feels cleaning up the ratings-challenged primetime lineup will be one of the biggest tasks.
“The new management has a big chore fixing CNN primetime. The first logical step is to terminate Don Lemon and end the buffoonery. That embarrassment has gone on too long. He’ll need to reach outside CNN for a replacement due to their woefully weak bench,” a longtime media insider and former CNN producer told Fox News Digital.
Licht, who is currently the showrunner for CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and a ViacomCBS executive vice president, is expected to be named chairman and CEO of CNN sometime around May 1 once a looming merger between Discovery and CNN parent WarnerMedia becomes official. The high-powered Licht has already indicated he will heavily focus on news, as opposed to the left-wing opinion programming that dominated the network under its previous regime. In a recent memo to future colleagues, Licht suggested changes are on the horizon.
“Together, we will double-down on what’s working well and quickly eliminate what’s not,” Licht wrote to his future staff.
“I know you have a lot of questions. Perhaps the biggest one is how will CNN change? The honest answer is that I don’t know yet. 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 continued in the memo that noticeably capitalized the word “news.”
The memo, which was sent on Monday, came only one day before February ratings indicated that it would be difficult to describe CNN’s primetime lineup as “working well.”
CNN’s lineup of primetime hosts is currently made up of only Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon, after the network’s biggest star, Chris Cuomo, was fired last year. The network has experimented with Brianna Keilar, Jim Acosta and Michael Smerconish in Cuomo’s old 9 p.m. time slot, but none have resonated with viewers. CNN has also given Cooper and Lemon an additional hour to fill Cuomo’s shoes a variety of times since the “Cuomo Prime Time” namesake was shown the door, but viewers didn’t exactly flock to the network for more of them, either.
CNN has averaged only 715,000 viewers from 8-11 p.m. in 2022 through February 28, down 105% from MSNBC’s average primetime audience of 1.2 million. Over the same time period, Fox News averaged 2.4 million primetime viewers to crush CNN by a staggering 241% despite significant news related to COVID, Russia and domestic issues unfolding on a daily basis.
CNN’s primetime lineup attracted a smaller audience than Fox News, MSNBC, USA, HGTV, TNT, ESPN, Hallmark, INSP, History and TLC during the month of February.
The most-watched show on CNN last month was “Anderson Cooper 360,” which averaged 816,000 viewers to finish as the No. 23 program on cable news. CNN’s most popular show lost to seven different MSNBC programs and 15 Fox News shows.
“Don Lemon Tonight” averaged a dismal 689,000 viewers to finish as the No. 34 program on cable news, attracting a smaller audience than multiple morning and daytime offerings despite a rosy primetime slot.
CNN is currently loaded with left-wing opinion hosts such as Lemon, which was part of former boss Jeff Zucker’s anti-Trump programming strategy. However, the network has floundered during the Biden era.
CNN has averaged only 916,000 primetime viewers since Biden took office, compared to 2.4 million for Fox News and 1.4 million for MSNBC. The network has largely relied on bashing conservatives, calling for censorship of non-liberal voices such as Joe Rogan and fawning over left-wing ideology since losing the ability to rely on Trump for relevancy.
The media insider and ex-CNN producer, who has observed over the years as Licht retooled MSNBC’s lineup by co-creating “Morning Joe” and then built “CBS This Morning” before running “The Late Show,” predicted that CNN’s struggling primetime hosts aren’t the only staffers in trouble.
“Licht did a pretty brutal purge of producers when he took over the CBS morning show. He cleaned house of the senior staff. It was borderline sadistic how it was carried out,” the insider added. “I would expect a similar housecleaning of executives loyal to Zucker at CNN. And anyone associated too closely with CNN+ or the Brian Stelter unit.”
CNN+, a soon-to-launch streaming service, was known as Zucker’s pet project. The network’s media reporter, Brian Stelter, is known to be a Zucker loyalist who was handpicked by the former CNN honcho to join the network and was often used as a quasi-spokesperson. Stelter was even awarded a daily show on CNN+ despite regularly failing to attract a significant audience on the regular version of CNN.
DePauw University professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall feels “it would behoove CNN to give serious consideration to a total revamp” of its primetime lineup.
“The primetime shows have been underperforming for some time and the heavy focus on opinion seems to run contrary to Licht’s supposed renewed emphasis on doing more hard journalism. If the strategy is to eliminate what’s not working, then primetime has to be on the to-do list,” McCall told Fox News Digital.
“Anderson Cooper is respected in journalistic circles, but his program has been around for a while and still struggles to generate solid numbers. The cable news world has changed, but it is clear that CNN was more of a force when it did more serious journalism and balanced analysis,” McCall added. “Getting back to that framework will take some time. CNN will have to convince potential viewers that it is serious about a redirection. It will also perhaps take some house cleaning to rid the culture of groupthink in defining the news agenda.”
McCall said America “needs an improved CNN” and it’s up to Licht to ensure the network regains trust.
“Little touch-ups around the edges won’t win back the many regular Americans who have viewed CNN as an activist journalistic organization in recent years,” he said.
Licht declined comment.
Outkick media columnist Bobby Burack, a frequent critic of CNN, recently wrote that Licht’s quest is to “unwoke” CNN, which coincides with the incoming boss’ emphasis on “NEWS.”
“CNN hosts are bitter school kids with no friends who use their platform to vent their misery to anyone who will listen. Except no one is listening anymore,” Burack wrote, noting that the network has attempted to make stars out of outspoken liberals such as Acosta instead of respected journalists like international correspondent Clarissa Ward.
“To re-establish CNN’s reputation as a credible news agency, Licht would have to focus on firing the network’s hateful on-air zealots, not on hiring and promoting respected journalists. And therein lies the problem,” he added. “The voices and stories that go viral paint a network’s image. CNN’s problem is not its lack of credible journalists but its promotion of leftist kooks who are neither bright nor impressive.”
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