Discovery on Monday confirmed that Chris Licht will become the new head of CNN when Discovery and WarnerMedia merge this spring.
Discovery CEO David Zaslav said “we plan to appoint Chris Licht as the new Chairman and CEO of CNN Global, hopefully starting May 1.”
The pending merger between Discovery and CNN’s current parent, WarnerMedia, is expected to take effect in April.
Licht, the former executive producer of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC and “CBS This Morning” on CBS, is currently the showrunner of “The Late Show” and executive vice president of special programming at ViacomCBS.
“I am a journalist at heart. While I have enjoyed every minute at ‘The Late Show,’ I am joining CNN because I feel a genuine pull to return to news at such a critical moment in history,” Licht said in a memo to staffers Monday morning.
“I know you have a lot of questions,” Licht wrote to staffers. “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.”
Both Zaslav and Licht have talked about “doubling down on journalism” at CNN, according to people who have spoken with them. Zaslav has said that CNN’s credibility is paramount, not ratings or profits, indicating a willingness to sacrifice short-term gains for long-term reputation.
Monday’s announcement doubled as an opportunity for Zaslav to introduce himself.
“I am a news junkie at the core and was lucky earlier in my career at NBC to play a role in starting CNBC and MSNBC,” Zaslav wrote in his own memo. “I have long been a big fan and admirer of CNN with its extended leadership in breaking news, global news, and investigative reporting. The coverage most recently from Ukraine has been extraordinary.”
Zaslav referenced his close relationship with Licht, which was a key factor in his hiring decision, according to two sources who spoke with CNN Business.
“I have known and admired Chris for over 15 years and believe he is the best person to lead this incredible organization,” Zaslav wrote. “Chris is a dynamic and creative producer, an engaging and thoughtful journalist, and a true news person.”
Licht also has a familial connection to CNN: His wife Jenny Blanco previously worked at the network as a supervising producer on “Anderson Cooper 360” and in other roles. He cited that in his memo and told staffers “I understand many of the daily challenges you face. My commitment is to foster an environment in which everyone can do their best work and feel supported.”
The top job at CNN suddenly opened up in early February when Jeff Zucker was forced out by WarnerMedia. In his resignation note, he admitted to a consensual romantic relationship with his longtime No. 2 Allison Gollust, which he had failed to disclose as required by corporate policy.
Gollust then resigned in mid-February. Both departures stemmed from an internal probe that started when prime time anchor Chris Cuomo was fired last December. WarnerMedia said an investigation found “violations of Company policies, including CNN’s News Standards and Practices, by Jeff Zucker, Allison Gollust, and Chris Cuomo.” The company has not detailed the violations, and Gollust’s representatives have defended her conduct.
Since the shakeup, three veteran CNN executives have been running the news network on an interim basis.
Licht’s career path bears some similarities to Zucker’s. Both men made a mark in morning television and gained respect from colleagues for news judgments and programming acumen.
With “CBS This Morning,” Licht created a two-hour telecast that emphasized more hard news than its broadcast rivals. He was also recognized for his talent management skills; anchors like Gayle King sang Licht’s praises.
In 2016 Licht moved from news to late-night when “The Late Show” needed a lift. Bill Carter, a CNN media analyst and the author of multiple books about late-night TV, said “Colbert credits him with saving his show and elevating it to most-watched in late night.”
Licht gained more management experience at “The Late Show” and focused on improving the show’s backstage culture. But broadly speaking, Carter said, Licht is “a producer first, not executive, key to making CNN work.”
Read Licht’s full memo below:
To my future colleagues:
The team at WarnerMedia has been kind enough to allow me to send this brief note.
First, I want to say how honored and excited I am about the plan for me to join the CNN team. I’ve watched in awe how you are covering the still-unfolding Ukraine story. It’s a great example of the power and impact of CNN. It also is proof that you know how to excel at your work during times of crisis.
Under normal circumstances, I would join you in person to introduce myself. However, Discovery has not yet combined with WarnerMedia and I still work for CBS. The current plan is for me to wind down at CBS in a couple of weeks and then join you at Hudson Yards in May, assuming the formal merger is complete.
In the meantime, I plan to do a lot of listening. I am familiar with CNN as a viewer, a journalist, a competitor and the husband of a former CNN staffer. As many of you know, my wife, Jenny, spent more than a decade in a variety of roles at the network. I understand many of the daily challenges you face. My commitment is to foster an environment in which everyone can do their best work and feel supported.
I look forward to getting to know all of you and hearing your candid thoughts and feedback. Our viewers demand the truth from us, and I want to learn the truth from you. Together, we will double-down on what’s working well and quickly eliminate what’s not.
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.
I am a journalist at heart. While I have enjoyed every minute at “The Late Show,” I am joining CNN because I feel a genuine pull to return to news at such a critical moment in history. CNN is uniquely positioned to be a beacon of meaningful, impactful journalism for the world. I am committed to upholding and building on CNN’s legacy.
I am incredibly excited to work with all of you. See you in May.