It’s been nearly a year now since Chris Licht took over as the chairman and CEO of CNN after the resignation of Jeff Zucker. If you are wondering how it’s going, last week CNN suffered its lowest ratings week in nine years. For comparison’s sake, MSNBC more than doubled the number of CNN viewers that week, while Fox News quadrupled those ratings. CNN averaged fewer than 450,000 viewers.
I don’t know how long one is supposed to give a new guy to turn things around, but I will say this: There have been no encouraging signs of life. Licht’s biggest in-front-of-the-camera change, so far, was to put Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow, and Kaitlan Collins together to host CNN This Morning. The series has actually seen a ratings decline since it premiered. A week ago, CNN This Morning was watched by 331,000 viewers compared to the 760,000 who watched Morning Joe on MSNBC and more than 1 million who watched Fox and Friends. That’s gotta hurt, considering that Licht is also responsible for assembling the Morning Joe team.
The new CNN is trying desperately to regain viewers’ trust, and while that is aspirationally nice, we no longer live in a political climate where trust is a priority, unfortunately. Not in the way that CNN defines it, anyway. Besides, the only real evidence offered to support that claim is programming that is increasingly dull. The morning show is a failure, the prime time schedule is in shambles, and they still haven’t found a permanent replacement for the 9 p.m. slot. Jake Tapper — the 4 p.m. anchor — is now the face of CNN, and while I like Tapper, he’s not exactly ratings catnip.
Now the network is going to bring in Bill Maher because Licht — previously the showrunner of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert — thinks that late-night comedy is the answer to their struggles. The network will begin airing segments of “Overtime,” the after-show segment of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher during CNN Tonight. It’s not going to help.
If CNN wants to compete and not simply make amorphous advances toward being “trusted,” the network needs to completely revamp. Cable news is dying. CNN won’t improve by making a more “trustworthy” version of the same product. It needs to create a different product altogether.
What exactly would that look like? I don’t know. I’m not Chris Licht. Or David Zaslav, but if I were, I’d look around and see what was working. I’m not talking about Fox News, where the entire brand now is basically owning the libs and scaring the hell out of their viewers. I’m talking about looking toward the podcast world. I’m talking about programs that are less scripted. Start each morning with something like The New York Times’ “The Daily,” minus Michael Barbaro. Bring in the Pod Save America guys to host the morning show. Jon Stewart is not as beloved as he once was, but he actually does exceptional podcast work now, spending an hour each week with an expert on a particular subject. Add something like that in the afternoons. The conversations are smart, but they’re also human. I like Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow, and Kaitlan Collins, but their morning show sounds like it was written by ChatGPT. In the 9 p.m. slot, do something similar to the NPR Politics podcast that essentially rotates all the political journalists on the network, depending upon the topic. Hire two blowhards to rant about sports at mid-morning for half an hour. Get Joanna Robinson and someone else to fill the other half hour with conversations about the latest episode of The Last of Us or The White Lotus. Jake Tapper can keep his 4 p.m. slot.
CNN launched cable news over 30 years ago. It hasn’t changed that much in 30 years. It’s still about filling 24 hours instead of creating compelling news content. It doesn’t have to be that way. The primetime schedule doesn’t have to be the same 2-3 talking heads every single night. They can fill that space with weekly programming from compelling, diverse voices who may already have engaged audiences in the podcast world or even on YouTube, where my kid spends an hour or two a day watching interesting, insightful, and entertaining video essays.
We used to go to cable news to find out what was happening right then. Cable news can still exist for that, but most of us get our breaking news from social media and news apps and from the guy in the office who always wants to be the first to announce that some celebrity has just died. Instead of trying to compete with Twitter, CNN should try to set itself apart. They should stop hiring former Administration officials. Access is not as important as insight, and all of the news networks are missing that.
What CNN is doing now is not working, and it almost certainly won’t work. It’s time to try something new. It’s time to blow up the old model and bring in a new one that not only attracts live viewers but the millions of potential time-shifted viewers who are interested in informative, engaging conversations that are not always directly tied to breaking news. In other words, instead of being a 24-hour newspaper, CNN could strive to be a 24-hour news magazine.