Calling 2022 a turbulent year for CNN is an understatement.
The news network lost its high profile leader when Jeff Zucker was fired over failing to disclose a relationship with his chief marketing officer. Top management at new parent company Warner Bros. Discovery publicly questioned the CNN’s political leanings and called for a move to the center. CNN’s streaming service was quickly shut down after its launch, TV ratings have slumped, and a corporate mandate to reduce costs in the new merged company now has staffers fearing layoffs by the end of the year.
The hits just keep on coming. On Friday, employees were told CNN is no longer buying documentary series and films from outside producers, who in recent years gave the network a library of award-winning (and advertiser friendly) content such as “RBG,” which chronicled the career of late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
As the behind the scenes drama plays out, CNN anchors will have to put on a happy face Tuesday when the curtain goes up on a new morning show. “CNN This Morning” is the first major initiative under CNN Chairman Chris Licht, who took the reins in April after a successful run at CBS, where he turned around the network’s morning news program and Stephen Colbert’s late night show.
“CNN This Morning” will be co-anchored by Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins — all familiar faces to the network’s viewers. The program has the dual task of improving the ratings in a competitive time period while attacking the network’s image problem.
For years, CNN took the brunt of former President Trump’s effort to demonize any news media that was critical of him. Unfairly or not, it created a perception to some that the network had moved to the political left.
Statements by Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav that the network needed to move away from political advocacy and appeal to both Republicans and Democrats put liberal critics on high alert. Some suggested on social media that CNN is chasing after conservative Fox News viewers. (It’s a difficult case to make if you watched CNN anchor Jake Tapper recently spend 45 minutes listening to journalist Bob Woodward explain why Trump is a danger to democracy.)
One of the aims of “CNN This Morning” will be to solidify the audience’s trust in the network as a reliable, unbiased truth merchant. Collins, who joined the network as a White House correspondent in 2017, offers anecdotal evidence that it’s possible.
Collins, 30, grew up in the politically deep-red state of Alabama, where her family’s viewing preferences were well entrenched.
“When I first got my job at CNN, my family was like, ‘What about Fox News?’ because that’s what they traditionally watched,” she said in a recent Zoom chat alongside her co-anchors. “It’s been fascinating. Since I started working at CNN, my dad watches every day. He turns it on in his office, and all his employees watch. It’s been fun to go home and see this narrative in the South of what CNN is dispelled when they watch it.”
Lemon, 56, joins “CNN This Morning” after having a prime-time show for eight years. He often harshly called out Trump on his program, which led to speculation he would not fit into the network’s plans to shift away from commentary. Instead he finds himself at the front of Licht’s first attempt to present a vision of what CNN will be going forward.
“A lot of that was bull—,” Lemon said of the industry chatter about his future. “People love palace intrigue. Never at any point was it signaled to me that I was going to lose my job and change anything that I was doing.”
Lemon is a versatile broadcaster, experienced in reporting breaking news stories while having enough pop culture savvy to fill in as a guest host for Wendy Williams’ daytime talk show.
“He’s a likable guy who is very comfortable in front of a camera,” said Mark Whitaker, a veteran journalist and former cable news executive. “I think he has more of a morning personality than a prime-time personality.”
Lemon has heard it before. “That’s what everybody says,” he said. “But we shall see.”
Lemon also has an easy rapport with Harlow — they are friends who were cast together without a screen test or run through. When Harlow, 40, announced last year she was taking a nine-month leave from her daytime co-anchor chair to earn a law degree from Yale, Lemon was the first colleague to call and cheer her on.
Both Lemon and Harlow have worked with Collins. She frequently appeared on their programs during her time on the White House beat, where her persistence drew the ire of the Trump administration.
“Part of being a great anchor is being a great reporter and Kaitlin is a great reporter — full stop,” Lemon said.
They all believe that their roots outside the media bubbles of New York and Washington — Lemon is from Louisiana, while Harlow is a Minnesota native — will help them connect with a wide range of viewers across the country.
“I think about my friends with their kids in the kitchen in Minneapolis as I’m interviewing a senator,” said Harlow, who has also covered business for the network.
Ryan Kadro, chief content officer at CNN, said much of network’s enterprise reporting will be presented first on “CNN This Morning” and help set the news agenda for the rest of the day.
“CNN This Morning” will also lean more into using the network’s reporting, especially from its international bureaus. The program will provide lengthy live reports on stories that develop overnight, taking advantage of CNN’s resources around the world and its stature as a global news brand.
Still, CNN competitors — and some insiders — question the new management team’s decision to revamp a morning program as its first order of business.
Prime time is where cable news gets its largest audiences. CNN lags well behind longtime leader Fox News in prime time among the overall audience, while dueling with MSNBC for second place in the 25-to-54 age group advertisers seek from news programming.
In the mornings, CNN is competing with not only “Fox & Friends” on Fox News and “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, but also the three broadcast network morning programs that offer local news and weather from their affiliates in addition to national coverage. Viewer habits in the morning are difficult to shift, and ratings typically move at a glacial pace.
CNN has an especially steep hill to climb. In 2022, the network averaged 414,000 viewers with “New Day” — its smallest morning audience since 2015 — compared with 1.36 million for “Fox & Friends” and 839,00 for “Morning Joe.”
But new executive teams tend to go with formats they have succeeded with in the past. Licht developed “Morning Joe,” a signature show for MSNBC that was recently expanded to four hours, and “CBS This Morning,” which saw yearly ratings growth until its co-host Charlie Rose was fired over sexual harassment allegations. (The program has since been renamed “CBS Mornings.”)
Both programs gained a reputation for being smarter alternatives in the typically breezy morning TV genre.
“Given Chris’ experience and creating really interesting significant programming in the morning, it makes sense,” said Kadro, who worked with Licht at CBS News. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”
Whitaker believes the morning format offers more flexibility for CNN to make a statement about what it wants to be. Prime-time cable news depends on political talking heads reacting to the news of the day on most nights.
“You have a much broader pallet you can paint with in the morning in the kind of subjects you can cover and the tone in which you can cover them,” Whitaker said.
Kadro expects CNN to be patient with the program’s ratings. It took more than a year for “CBS This Morning” to gain traction with viewers after it was launched in 2012.
CNN’s management has tried not to fixate on the slumping audience levels at the network as Licht sets his strategy for the organization going forward. All three major cable news networks saw year-to-year audiences losses in the third quarter of 2022, but CNN was down the most with a 17% drop compared with 13% for Fox News and 11% for MSNBC.
Nonetheless, the network still has a solid reputation with advertisers. Many sponsors don’t want to be associated with audacious opinion programming on cable that attracts the largest audiences on the conservative Fox News and the progressive MSNBC.
As a result CNN, the original cable news brand, is still able to command a higher rate for its ad time, getting more dollars per thousand viewers than its competition. Licht wants to preserve that advantage.
CNN’s stature also matters when its owners negotiate for pay TV carriage fees, which account for more than half of its revenues.
CNN turned an annual $1-billion profit in recent years under Zucker. It won’t reach that plateau this year partly due to the investment made in streaming service CNN+ that was shut down by Warner Bros. Discovery just three weeks after its launch.
Can it get back above that profit level again while restoring its reputation as a straight shooting news organization in a highly polarized political environment? The first chapter of that story begins Tuesday.