After a year of chaos, CNN is betting that new CEO Thompson will focus on long-term profitability

A person walks past the Cable News Network (CNN) headquarters on November 17, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Brandon Bell | Getty Images

When former CNN CEO Chris Licht took over the news organization last year, he was given a mandate from his boss: Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav: Change the network's programming and tone to emphasize news instead of “advocacy” journalism.

After Licht, CNN's new CEO, was fired Mark Thompson has a new job: everything else.

Thompson, who starts at CNN on Oct. 9, has held preliminary discussions with Zaslav and other members of CNN leadership about strategic ideas and priorities, according to people familiar with the matter who declined to speak publicly because the discussions were confidential . He has not made any decisions about CNN's operations and will not until he has had a chance to meet employees and familiarize himself with the business, the people said.

Nevertheless, some key points are clear. Thompson will focus on building digital subscription businesses around and creating programming for younger audiences on CNN Max, the network's live news service on Warner Bros. Discovery's Max streaming service, two of the said Persons.

Licht's background was in programming, launching “Morning Joe” on MSNBC and “CBS This Morning” with Charlie Rose, Norah O'Donnell and Gayle King. Zaslav hired him as a television programmer – and eventually fired him after Licht lost the trust of his employees and failed to deliver the best ratings.

Much of Licht's brief reign, which lasted just over a year, revolved around depoliticizing CNN. Zaslav and Licht agreed that CNN had gained a reputation for being left-leaning and sought to focus the network as a middle channel that could appeal to both Democrats and Republicans. Licht and CNN's leadership since his firing — a four-person team including Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, Eric Sherling and David Leavy — have revamped CNN's linear shows, including a new morning show and a revised primetime lineup.

Licht has struggled to win over CNN employees, deliberately taking a casual approach to distinguish himself from former CNN chief Jeff Zucker, who resigned in February 2022 after failing to disclose a consensual relationship with a colleague. According to people familiar with the matter, Zaslav felt that Light was too slow to make decisions and that he did not adequately assess CNN's talent. Licht believed he couldn't be his authentic self given Zaslav's mandate to be a no-nonsense leader who needed to reform CNN's image and cut costs, the people said. Licht was forced to lay off hundreds of employees as part of a broader workforce reduction at Warner Bros. Discovery.

While Licht has largely focused on linear programming, Thompson will focus over the next five years on making CNN a sustainable business – a timeline he has already discussed with some members of CNN leadership, according to people familiar with the matter . The work to transform CNN's reputation is largely complete, according to people familiar with the thinking of Warner Bros. Discovery executives.

How to report on Donald Trump, a topic that defined Licht's term of office, Thompson is unlikely to be among the top five priorities when he takes the job, according to a person familiar with the matter. Existing CNN executives believe they already have the infrastructure in place to properly handle the former president and current Republican primary candidate ahead of the 2024 election, the person said.

Entelis, Moseley, Sherling and Leavy all plan to remain at CNN while Thompson takes over as CEO, according to people familiar with the matter. Everyone will report to Thompson. A CNN spokesman declined to comment on speculation about Thompson's possible moves and strategy.

Digital strategy

Thompson's last job was CEO of the New York Timeswhich he held from 2012 to 2020. He grew the Times' digital subscription business, launched in 2011, from fewer than 1 million subscribers about 7 million before leaving the company in September 2020. During his time as the newspaper's CEO, shares rose from $9 to about $43 – a gain of more than 375%.

CNN has not had a clear digital strategy since Zaslav and Licht decided to shut down CNN+ after just one month in 2022. At the time, CNN+ was a little-noticed streaming service that launched without much content. Former CNN chief Jeff Zucker and then-CNN digital chief Andrew Morse hoped it would eventually become CNN's version of the New York Times – a subscription news product that could include more than just video.

Thompson will still have to oversee CNN's linear network, a business that has declined as the pay-TV cable bundle has eroded. But Zaslav is counting on using and its 149 million monthly unique visitors as a funnel to build digital subscription businesses, people familiar with the matter say.

One idea currently being discussed is to build multiple subscription products within around specific topics that would not require a paywall, the people said. For customers who want full access, CNN could offer a package at a discount. Paying a monthly fee could unlock on-demand or live CNN programming on specific topics, grant users access to certain in-depth or focused journalism, and provide other benefits.

Thompson, like the New York Times, could look for ways to integrate Bleacher Report with has finished with The Athleticthe online sports media company it acquired last year for $550 million, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Programming CNN Max

Before joining The New York Times, Thompson was general manager (a combination of managing director and editor-in-chief) of the British Broadcasting Corporation. He will have the chance to develop new shows CNN Max, a tab within Warner Bros. Discovery's larger Max streaming service.

With CNN Max, Thompson will look to program programming for a younger audience. CNN's linear network primarily appeals to older adults ages 60 and older who still subscribe to traditional pay TV.

Thompson will have some seed capital to invest in CNN Max. CNN's Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization are expected to be closer to $1 billion in 2023 falling to $750 million in 2022, when this was the case About $200 million in losses related to CNN+, people familiar with the matter say. The attention from the US presidential election is also expected to improve advertising revenue in 2024.

To keep CNN relevant, Thompson needs to develop news programming that appeals to millennials and younger viewers will watch. CNN's former leadership feared news content would be swallowed up by a larger streaming service and believed it would be difficult to convince viewers to forego entertainment programming when both are on the same platform. That prompted Zucker and former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar to push for CNN+, a standalone streaming service.

CNN has already begun exploring ideas to address this issue, including potentially alerting Max viewers watching on-demand entertainment to breaking news from CNN.

“This is a game that still has a lot to play,” JB Perrette, president and CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery’s streaming division, said of the streaming news business last month in an interview with Variety. “Nobody has figured it out yet.”

That will be Thompson's job.

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