Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here.
CNN’s future is coming into greater focus.
The news network, which has endured a tumultuous 20-month period marked by a number of seismic internal events, is taking its first steps after regaining its footing following the divorce with former chief executive Chris Licht.
Last week, CNN announced a sweeping overhaul of its lineup, establishing its all-important prime time roster while also making several other key programming moves. And on Thursday, the outlet announced the launch of CNN Max, a new service that represents the beginning of a streaming future for the channel following the abrupt shuttering of the nascent CNN+.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, there continues to be an active search for the next leader of CNN, following Licht’s dismissal. Mark Thompson, the former chief executive at The New York Times and director general of the BBC, has been in discussions with Warner Bros. Discovery leadership for the top job, among several other contenders, a person familiar with the matter told me.
The appointment of an executive such as Thompson, a veteran with a strong reputation for being focused intently on digital, could help further push CNN beyond the traditional business of linear television, which is contracting at a much faster pace than many industry observers previously predicted.
What happens next is up in the air. Most of the major changes announced in the programming overhaul have yet to be implemented; the beta version of CNN Max doesn’t launch until next month; and a new leader for CNN has not yet been named (obviously) and would take months to get up to speed, make decisions, and be evaluated.
Drafting a blueprint for success is only the first step in what promises to be a journey down a path made up of uncertain, arduous terrain. Execution, no matter how brilliant the plan, will not be easy — particularly when involving this many chess pieces on a big stage amid a larger chaotic media landscape.
That said, there is at least the feeling inside CNN that the network is moving forward after being frozen in place and in need of a course correction. After many months, CNN finally has cemented a prime time lineup. And while CNN Max might not be the luxurious streaming lifeboat that CNN+ might have been, it is a lifeboat — and some form of a vessel is better than none at all.
The big uncertainty is who CNN’s next leader might be and how quickly they could be installed. Given the wide latitude the current interim leadership team has been given to reconfigure the network’s programming, among other things, there was a strong sense internally that The Quad (as they’re referred to by staffers) would be in place for some time, perhaps even through the 2024 presidential election.
That notion was ruptured this week, amid reports about the hunt for a new singular leader. The internal sentiment, which I’ve gathered through conversations with staffers over the last 24 hours, could best be described as mixed feelings in the wake of an ugly breakup.
On one hand, there is respect for Thompson and what he has achieved in his career. And the appointment of a new CNN chief suggests that WBD is in fact committed to CNN, seemingly putting to bed rumors about the network being sold at some time in the near future.
On the other hand, the notion a new leader might soon be appointed has given way to some anxiety — not necessarily over Thompson in particular, but about the larger possibility that the organization may soon have to grapple with another major executive shakeup. Staffers I’ve spoken to, all of whom range widely in jobs and seniority, feel that it might just be a little too soon to get back into the dating pool.
Ultimately, however, that decision isn’t CNN’s to make — and yet another executive shakeup could indeed be on the horizon for staffers.