David Zaslav Picked Chris Licht to Revamp CNN. Now What?

The media mogul David Zaslav handpicked Chris Licht last year to run CNN, handing the reins of one of the country’s top news organizations to a longtime show producer. On Wednesday, just 13 months later, Mr. Zaslav said that he was reversing course, and Mr. Licht was out.

“For a number of reasons things didn’t work out, and that’s unfortunate,” Mr. Zaslav said on an editorial call with CNN’s staff Wednesday morning. “And I take full responsibility for that.”

So what’s Mr. Zaslav’s next move?

After appointing Mr. Licht, Mr. Zaslav said he didn’t want CNN to be an “anti-Trump network,” a reference to his plan to air a wider range of political viewpoints, including from conservatives.

Mr. Zaslav is still committed to that strategy, said two people familiar with his thinking, but he faces a major hurdle: Recruiting a replacement for Mr. Licht who shares that vision for CNN and can win back the trust of the newsroom, which had bristled at Mr. Licht’s leadership.

Mr. Zaslav must also figure out a financial future for CNN, which relies heavily on the decaying businesses of cable affiliate fees and TV advertising. Profit at the company fell below $1 billion last year, the lowest in many years, including $200 million in one-time losses for the shuttered CNN+ streaming service.

Through a spokesman, Mr. Zaslav declined to comment. But on the call Wednesday he said that he was committed to a recruiting process to find Mr. Licht’s successor. That represents a significant departure from his previous approach: Mr. Licht was appointed by Mr. Zaslav personally, without talking to any other candidates except Mr. Licht, according to two people with knowledge of his selection.

Mr. Zaslav, 63, is a hard-charging chief executive who manages with exacting detail. He’s known for holding meetings in the morning, sometimes as early as 7 a.m., and weighing in with strategic details. He has described himself to employees as a “fixer,” telling them he wants to hear bad news quickly so he can address it.

He has engineered a series of audacious mergers that have catapulted him to the highest echelons of the media industry. In 2018, more than a decade after he became chief executive of Discovery, he closed a deal to merge the company with Scripps Networks Interactive, a rival in the realm of nonfiction TV, giving the combined company greater power in its negotiations with cable providers. While at Discovery, he also expanded the company’s sports programming, striking a deal for the rights to air the Olympics internationally.

Warner Bros. Discovery and CNN have been the topic of occasional speculation in the media industry as potential acquisition targets. But Mr. Zaslav told employees emphatically in a town hall last year that the company and its divisions were not for sale.

His profile skyrocketed in 2021 after he announced a merger with Warner Media, putting him in charge of crown jewels like CNN, HBO and the Warner Bros. movie studio. The deal cemented Mr. Zaslav’s rise from the head of a small mid-Atlantic cable company to a media mogul overseeing both prestige film and TV productions and a pre-eminent news network.

Over the years, he has had his hands in the cable news business. He played a role in the formation of CNBC when he was an executive at NBC decades ago, helping expand distribution for the business news channel.

He has called CNN the “greatest journalistic organization on earth.”

Mr. Zaslav has described his vision to expand political viewpoints at CNN in heroic terms, likening it to the battle against tyranny in World War II. In a meeting with CNN staffers in March, in which he defended Mr. Licht, Mr. Zaslav said that CNN was headed toward a “rendezvous with destiny,” adding that it would not become “an advocacy network” for any political viewpoint.

“I am so proud that we have a chance every day at CNN to be a real purveyor of facts and truth in journalism, and to be a place that people can go to have a national and global conversation about what’s going on in the world,” Mr. Zaslav said, according to a recording of his remarks.

Mr. Zaslav has a close relationship with John Malone, the cable news magnate who is an influential shareholder of Warner Bros. Discovery. In an interview last year, Mr. Malone cited the Fox News host Bret Baier as a reliably centrist newscaster and said that he was open to “wacko” opinion programming from the political left and right, provided that those shows were clearly labeled opinion programming.

A loyal circle of confidants has worked with Mr. Zaslav for years: David Leavy, CNN’s chief operations officer; Adria Alpert Romm, the chief people and culture officer; Bruce Campbell, the chief revenue and strategy officer; and Jean-Briac Perrette, the president and chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery global streaming and games division.

Though CNN generates only about 5 percent of the overall revenue of Warner Bros. Discovery, it has accounted for an overwhelming number of the headlines written about the company in recent months.

Mr. Zaslav is hopeful Mr. Licht’s departure will grant the company a brief respite from wall-to-wall critical coverage, according to a person who has spoken to him in recent days. But Mr. Zaslav views the situation at CNN as his problem to fix.

“This is on me,” Mr. Zaslav said, according to a recording of his remarks from Wednesday morning’s call.

Benjamin Mullin is a media reporter for The Times, covering the major companies behind news and entertainment. @benmullin

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