CNN Staff Brace for Change as Chris Licht Era Starts to Takes Shape

CNN Staff Brace for Change as Chris Licht Era Starts to Takes Shape

On Friday morning, CNN CEO Chris Licht addressed the decision to cancel the Sunday show Reliable Sources, and told staff on the news channel’s 9 a.m. editorial call that there will be more changes to come.

“I want to acknowledge that this is a time of significant change, and I know that many of you are unsettled,” Licht said, according to multiple people on the call. “There will be more changes and you might not understand it or like it.”

CNN’s decision to cancel Brian Stelter’s show brought renewed anxiety to the halls of 30 Hudson Yards, according to multiple CNN staffers. 

While Licht has made it clear since he began that there would be changes coming to CNN’s lineup, and not just to its streaming strategy, those plans “hadn’t really sunk in yet,” said one of the staffers. 

Everyone knew that Licht needed to find a new 9 p.m. anchor to replace Chris Cuomo, who was fired last December. And Licht promised at Warner Bros. Discovery’s upfront in May that he wanted to “reimagine” CNN’s morning show, promising to be a “disruptor” to the time period. Whether that reimagining includes New Day anchors John Berman and Brianna Keilar is unclear for now, but few inside CNN expect them to remain on that show long-term.

He shifted Chris Wallace to Sunday evenings, with plans to add a 60 Minutes-esque long-form series highlighting CNN’s journalism. And he announced new hires on new beats, like “guns in America,” and tweaked the guidelines around the use of the phrase “Breaking News.”

But no one really expected Sunday nights, weekday mornings and 9 p.m. to be the only places where Licht would seek change. And the Sunday morning shakeup, with other Sunday changes expected to follow, is emblematic of that point of view. 

To that end, a few media insiders polled by THR predict that while the Reliable Sources decision will not be the end of the changes at CNN, no one seems to think it portends large scale layoffs that other divisions of Warner Bros. Discovery are expected to face in the coming weeks. 

Instead, individual shows (and, as with Reliable, some of their staff) may be sent packing. 

“I think people are legitimately sad that Brian is leaving — he was a big presence at the network — but understand that Chris has to put his stamp on the network,” one person familiar with the thinking inside CNN said. 

On Friday’s call, Licht praised Stelter and his work, and criticized media reporters speculating about CNN’s programming plans, adding that no one outside the company knows them.

“Give it a minute; see how things develop; and then have feedback,” he said.

He also condemned the leak of Reliable‘s cancelation, calling it “gross and inhumane,” and telling staff that the announcement was supposed to happen later in the week.

The latest changes follow what had been a tough introduction to the channel for Licht, with the news that CNN would be shutting down its CNN+ streaming service after less than a month. The decision to shut down CNN+ — and lay off 239 employees, according to records with the New York State Department of Labor — was made at a corporate level. But it was Licht who had to deliver the bad news on April 21. 

He also made it clear to staff, however, that a hiring freeze that had been in place was lifting. And that while CNN+ was not a good fit strategically, CNN itself was a critical part of the company. As gutting as the shutdown of CNN+ was for staff, it also reassured them that, while there would surely be changes ahead, the larger boat would not be rocked — at least for the time being.

The latest moves, however, suggest that the boat is beginning to sway.

Meanwhile, Licht has tapped his former CBS This Morning deputy Ryan Kadro (who went on to lead the show after Licht’s departure) to serve in a new role as senior vp of content strategy and development, a source confirms to The Hollywood Reporter. Reporting to Amy Entelis and slated to start next week, Kadro will be helping to develop new programming and content for CNN, a task that is expected to include brainstorming ideas for the new morning show and for 9 p.m. 

Licht himself earned a reputation for managing talent and generating new ways of thinking for TV news programming. “He has a knack for putting people together, for spotting talent,” CBS Mornings anchor Gayle King told THR after Licht’s hiring, comments that were echoed by Morning Joe‘s Joe Scarborough. Now he and Kadro will be putting those skills to use in trying to figure out where CNN goes from here.

But Kadro is the exception. Some insiders were surprised that Licht kept almost all of former CNN president Jeff Zucker’s top deputies, including the triumvirate of Entelis, Michael Bass and Ken Jautz, who led CNN on an interim basis.

The subtle changes at the executive level, combined with the limited tweaks to on-air programming, had led some staff to think that CNN’s future would bear a close resemblance to its status quo. But the move to cancel Reliable underscored that change is coming. 

That being said, CNN staffers should be prepared for those changes to come at a trickle. 

“You heard me say in my first town hall that I am going to make decisions slower than some would like,” Licht wrote in a June memo to staff. “I know this organization has been through tremendous change over the last four months, which is why I am approaching this process slowly and thoughtfully as we look at all parts of the operation. We will realign where it makes sense to best serve our people and the business.”