CNN’s pending layoffs, holes in primetime causing consternation under new CEO

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Pending layoffs, anxious staffers, gaping holes in primetime. CNN CEO Chris Licht has put his stamp on the network since he took over for scandal-plagued Jeff Zucker earlier this year, but as 2022 nears its end, it hasn’t been an easy transition.

Licht took control of CNN earlier this year after a long-planned merger put it under control of the newly formed Warner Bros. Discovery. The new regime was thought to be the adult in the room, after CNN saw a dramatic shift in its reputation under Zucker from just-the-facts newsgathering to left-leaning editorializing. He’s been on the job less than a year, but the network is now facing looming layoffs and widespread viewership issues that have the network on pace for historic lows.

Many staffers are beset by dread and a feeling of uncertainty as many have no idea if they’ll be employed by Christmas. Cuts are expected to be done by early December, as Licht previously admitted in an October memo that noticeable changes would soon “affect people, budgets, and projects” throughout the company. According to a Puck report, after initially telling staffers layoffs weren’t in the offing, Licht was tasked by boss David Zaslav with making a further $100 million in cuts as part of a broader Warner Bros. Discovery budget-slicing effort.

One insider described “huge nerves” within CNN, as evidenced by a town hall moderated by anchor Alisyn Camerota last week where Licht took questions from tense staffers. According to a source who saw the meeting, Licht was noncommittal about who would be laid off, but it’s rumored the list of who’s on the chopping block is already finalized.


CNN's pending layoffs, holes in primetime causing consternation under new CEO

CNN CEO Chris Licht took control of CNN earlier this year after a long-planned merger that put CNN under control of the newly formed Warner Bros. Discovery. 
(Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Warner Bros. Discovery)

Licht was also asked whether he could still be trusted after he’d indicated earlier this year that layoffs weren’t on the horizon. A CNN spokesman told Fox News Digital Licht also noted in June that there was going to be an assessment of which resources should go where at CNN and there could be “some changes there,” but layoffs were not seen as on the table at that moment.

The CNN insider said Licht was making painful but necessary decisions when it came to finances, praising his handling of a difficult situation.

“The Zucker era was like the roaring 20s, people were spending money hand over fist,” they said. “There is a lot of fat. It sucks, but these layoffs are probably necessary.”

Perhaps Licht’s splashiest effect on CNN so far has been his slow but steady purge of some of the faces of CNN’s left-wing shift over the past decade. Media correspondent Brian Stelter, who focused almost solely on conservative media criticism, and outspokenly liberal White House correspondent John Harwood – both Zucker-era hires –  were shown the door in the past few months. Liberal legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who was brought back to the airwaves after his embarrassing Zoom scandal, also was pushed out this year.

“I know the firings of Brian and John were kind of ideological, who on air are just viewed as hacky. John Harwood is such a hack, you know? Brian Stelter means well,” the insider said.

Licht has other problems besides personnel, though. Chris Cuomo, CNN’s top-rated anchor for years, was fired last year by Zucker, and with Don Lemon out of primetime as well as the face of its new morning show, there is still no permanent solution at two of its most critical time slots.

CNN’s ratings this year are nightmare fuel for most cable news executives, although Zaslav has insisted that he doesn’t care about viewership and wants to solely focus on restoring credibility to CNN. 


CNN's pending layoffs, holes in primetime causing consternation under new CEO

CNN’s Laura Coates has some internal support as a possible primetime anchor in the wake of Chris Cuomo’s firing.

“The bosses only say ‘we don’t care about ratings’ until they see the balance sheet,” a former CNN producer recently told Fox News Digital when CNN pulled the plug on Jake Tapper’s short-lived primetime experiment.

Tapper anchored its 9 p.m. hour for the last month leading up to the midterms but has since returned to his dayside program, while Laura Coates and Alisyn Camerota co-anchored a show from 10 p.m. to midnight after Lemon moved to mornings.

CNN honchos may hope Warner Bros. Discovery overlords don’t peek at the balance sheet anytime soon. The network is on pace to have its lowest-rated year among the advertiser-coveted demographic of adults age 25-54 since at least 1992 when the data started being tracked. 

CNN traditionally thrives on Election Day, but its Nov. 8 coverage of the 2022 midterms finished last among relevant cable news outlets. It was the first time in CNN history that it finished in last place in viewership for any midterm or presidential election. 

CNN’s election day coverage lost to both Fox News and MSNBC among total day viewers, primetime viewers and viewers during the 6 p.m. ET through 1 a.m. ET window, when the trio of networks were in special coverage. 

Since Cuomo’s firing, the network still hasn’t announced a permanent host for the coveted 9 p.m. ET hour that is historically one of the most prominent gigs in cable news, a move that has baffled industry insiders who don’t understand what’s taking so long. Coates, CNN’s legal analyst and a fill-in primetime host at times over the past few months, has support within the company as a possible permanent replacement at the hour, according to a source.


Licht reportedly wanted Tapper to be in the marquee time spot permanently, but the network initially billed the move as a temporary fix through the midterms that would fill the gaping hole created after Cuomo’s dismissal. Some cable news insiders viewed the experiment as a “tryout” to see if Tapper could click, but he failed to draw significant viewership.

Another CNN insider told Fox News Digital the handling of Tapper caused head-scratching within the company and with Tapper himself, however. A Vanity Fair report noted he all along had expressed contentment with his current situation, so he could spend adequate time with his family; a primetime gig would cut heavily into that. 

Tapper’s primetime debut included interviews with President Biden and movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson but still only drew 854,000 viewers. Tapper has since been relegated back to 4 p.m. and the network claims that was the plan all along. The primetime experiment lasted about one month, about the same time the network’s short-lived streaming service CNN+ lasted earlier this year before Licht scrapped it shortly after the merger. 

CNN didn’t respond to request for comment on if it had announcements to soon make on permanent picks for its primetime hours.

CNN also replaced its long-struggling morning show “New Day” with a heavily promoted program centered Lemon earlier this month, “CNN This Morning,” but that hasn’t attracted high amounts of viewers yet, either. 

CNN's pending layoffs, holes in primetime causing consternation under new CEO

The first episode of "CNN This Morning," with co-anchor Don Lemon, attracted only 387,000 total viewers.

Since the Nov. 1 launch of “CNN This Morning,” the program has averaged only 479,000 viewers and a dismal 110,000 among the demo that pays the bills. By comparison, MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” averages 942,000 total viewers and 128,000 among the demo while “FOX & Friends” beats them both combined across the board. 


Puck’s Dylan Byers, a former CNN reporter who remains with many staffers, has been crucifying Licht with a series of articles that put a spotlight on the network’s internal crisis of low morale as rank-and-file staffers tell him “things have never been worse” as they fear for their jobs. 

At the town hall last week, one questioner of Licht said they’d never seen morale as low in their decades at CNN.

All ratings data courtesy of Nielsen Media Research. 



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