CNN Shouldn’t Get a New CEO After the Licht Debacle

  • Chris Licht’s exit as CEO of CNN gives Warner Bros. Discovery the chance to rethink what the network needs.
  • Jeff Zucker, whose title was president, led CNN successfully — if not without controversy — for nine years.
  • The CEO title didn’t empower Licht, who was seen as executing Zaslav’s vision, not his own.

Warner Bros. Discovery should not hire a new CEO for CNN.

Chris Licht’s exit from that role gives WBD an opportunity to rethink what kind of leadership the organization really needs, and CEO David Zaslav should grab it.

You know who wasn’t CEO of CNN? Jeff Zucker, the network’s boss for nine years. Zucker’s title was president of CNN Worldwide. He was also chairman of WarnerMedia News & Sports, but that’s not the role he was known for.

And while there are plenty of criticisms to make of his tenure — the firehose coverage of Trump, ratings challenges, the undisclosed consensual relationship with a colleague that precipitated his exit — Zucker was a strong, dynamic general who held the hearts and minds of CNN newsroom. Without a CEO title.

Insider recently published an org chart highlighting the most powerful executives at WBD — it reveals that there are nine people with a CEO title reporting to Zaslav. Nine.

A CEO runs a company. WBD is a sprawling global entertainment conglomerate with many complex divisions, but it is not a holding company with nine subsidiaries each requiring its own chief executive.

Zaslav is the chief executive of all of those divisions, especially CNN, where he reportedly was very involved with day-to-day operations, even though the network represents less than 10% of WBD revenue, The Wall Street Journal reported.

By handing out CEO titles like gumdrops, Zaslav may have intended to empower his divisional leaders after merging two companies — Discovery and WarnerMedia — with disparate cultures and tens of thousands of global employees.

Instead he diluted the potency of the title, especially for Licht, who was from day one seen as a good lieutenant who was executing Zaslav’s vision, not his own.

With a title upgrade for the CNN boss, maybe Zaslav was also signaling that Licht would be a different kind of leader than Zucker. And so he was, by all accounts Zucker’s opposite. Licht chose an office several floors away from the newsroom, the heart of the organization, alienated on- and off-camera talent, and failed to communicate a clear or strong vision.

After a year of defending Licht’s leadership in the face of increasing criticism, culminating in that devastating Atlantic profile, Zaslav saw that Licht needed an operational partner to run the commercial side of the newsroom (and possibly save his job). 

David Leavy, WBD’s chief corporate affairs officer, was dispatched to lead communications, marketing, and other non-editorial functions so that Licht could focus on the part of the job he should’ve — and maybe could’ve — been great at: leading the newsroom, nurturing talent, and producing compelling television.

But it was too little, too late.

If Zaslav anoints a Licht replacement without the CEO title, even if the functions of the job don’t change much, media observers will see it as a less lofty role. And that could be a great thing for the person who takes up the CNN mantle and for the newsroom.

Instead of adding yet another CEO to his C-dense org chart, Zaslav should be searching for someone who can rally the demoralized troops to transcend their internal challenges in the face of a challenging business environment and a fraught election news cycle ahead.

Someone presidential.

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