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

Media mogul David Zaslav handpicked Chris Licht to run CNN last year, entrusting the reins of one of the nation’s top news outlets to the longtime producer. Just 13 months later, on Wednesday, Mr. Zaslav said he had changed course and Mr. Licht was leaving.

“For various reasons things didn’t work out. It’s a shame,” Zaslav said at an editorial meeting with CNN staff on Wednesday morning. “And I take full responsibility for that.”

So what will Mr. Zaslav’s next move?

After Licht’s appointment, Zaslav said he didn’t want CNN to become an “anti-Trump network,” citing his plans to broadcast a wide range of political views, including conservatives.

Zaslav remains committed to the strategy, but faces major hurdles, according to two people familiar with his thinking. That means hiring a replacement for Licht who shares that vision with CNN and can restore the confidence of the press. He was furious with Licht’s leadership.

Zaslav also needs to assess the financial future of CNN, which relies heavily on its dwindling business of cable affiliate fees and TV advertising. The company’s profits fell below $1 billion last year, the lowest in years, including a one-time loss of $200 million from the shutting down of the CNN+ streaming service.

Zaslav declined to comment through a spokesperson. But in a call on Wednesday, he said he would work on a hiring process to find a successor to Licht. This marks a major departure from his previous approach. Mr. Licht was personally appointed by Mr. Zaslav without speaking to any other candidates, according to two people familiar with his selection.

Mr. Zaslav, 63, is a dedicated chief executive with a meticulous approach to management. He is known for having meetings in the morning, sometimes at 7am, to work out strategic details. He describes himself as a “fixer” to employees, saying he wants to hear bad news early and deal with it.

He has planned a series of bold mergers that have elevated him to the top of the media industry. In 2018, more than a decade after becoming CEO of Discovery, he signed an agreement to merge the company with rival Scripps Networks Interactive in the non-fiction television space. companies have greater power in negotiations with cable providers. During his time at Discovery, he expanded the company’s sports programming and signed a contract for the rights to televise the Olympic Games internationally.

Warner Bros. Discovery and CNN have occasionally been the subject of speculation in the media industry as potential acquisition targets. But Mr. Zaslav stressed to employees at City Hall last year that the company and its divisions are not for sale.

After announcing a merger with Warner Media in 2021, his profile skyrocketed and he was appointed head of blockbusters for CNN, HBO, Warner Bros. Film Studios and more. The deal cemented Mr. Zaslav’s status from the president of a small Mid-Atlantic cable company to a media mogul overseeing both high-end film and television productions and a prominent news network.

He has been in the cable news business for many years. He helped found CNBC decades ago when he was an executive at NBC, and the business he helped expand the distribution of the news channel.

He called CNN “the greatest journalistic organization on the planet.”

Zaslav explained his vision of expanding political perspective on CNN in heroic terms, likening it to fighting oppression in World War II. At a meeting with CNN staff who defended Licht in March, Zaslav said CNN was headed for “meeting fate”, adding that it would not become an “advocacy network” for any political views.

“I am so grateful that CNN has every day an opportunity to become a true communicator of facts and truth in journalism and a place where people can participate in the national and global conversation about what is happening in the world. I am proud,” said Zaslav, according to a recording of his remarks.

Zaslav has a close relationship with cable news mogul John Malone, an influential shareholder in Warner Bros. Discovery. In an interview last year, Mr. Malone singled out Fox News host Brett Byer as a decidedly centrist newscaster, pointing out that “wacky” opinion shows from the political left and right are clearly opinion shows. He said he would accept it as long as it was labeled.

A group of loyal confidants have worked with Mr. Zaslav for many years. CNN Chief Operations Officer David Levy. Adria Alpert Rom, Chief People’s Cultural Officer. Bruce Campbell, Chief Revenue Strategy Officer. Jean-Buriac, President and CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery’s Global Streaming and Gaming division, Mr. Perrett.

Despite CNN generating only about 5% of all Warner Bros. Discovery revenue, it has dominated the headlines written about the company in recent months.

Mr. Zaslav hopes Licht’s resignation will provide temporary relief from critical press within the company, according to people familiar with the matter who have spoken to Mr. Zaslav in recent days. But Zaslav sees the CNN situation as a problem he needs to solve.

“This is my responsibility,” Zaslav said, according to a recording of the call Wednesday morning.

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