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CNN’s new chief gives Discovery a chance to build a bridge from Jeff Zucker to a new era

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Executive producer Chris Licht of the television show Our Cartoon President speaks onstage during the CBS/Showtime portion of the 2018 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Langham Huntington, Pasadena on January 6, 2018 in Pasadena, California.
Frederick M. Brown | Getty Images

Discovery hasn’t closed its deal for WarnerMedia yet, but there are already signs cable news station CNN may be in line for a makeover.

Discovery on Monday officially named Chris Licht as the new head of CNN. Former head of the network Jeff Zucker reluctantly resigned earlier this month after failing to disclose an office relationship with ex-CNN marketing head Allison Gollust. If Discovery’s merger with WarnerMedia closes next month, as expected, Licht will start at CNN in May after departing CBS in “a couple of weeks,” according to an internal memo received by CNBC.

Licht was the only person Discovery CEO David Zaslav called about taking over for Zucker, according to people familiar with the matter. There wasn’t a bakeoff among executives or any outside hiring firm involved in the decision, said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions were private.

Zaslav and Licht have known each other for over a decade, and Licht has frequently attended Zaslav’s parties at his house in the Hamptons.

“I have known and admired Chris for more than 15 years and strongly believe he is the best person to lead CNN Global as part of Warner Bros. Discovery,” Zaslav said in a statement.

Turnaround expert

Licht has built a reputation in the television industry as a turnaround guru. After founding “Morning Joe” with Joe Scarborough in 2007 as the show’s executive producer, Licht joined CBS in 2011 to re-invent CBS’s morning show, which had struggled with low ratings and lack of focus. In 2016, he moved on to become the executive producer of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” again helping boost ratings.

“If you are looking to reimagine CNN and bring it closer to its original mission of just doing the news, he is your guy,” said Mosheh Oinounou, a media consultant who worked with Licht at CBS from 2011 to 2016 as part of the team that re-launched “CBS This Morning.”

While Zaslav hasn’t made any public comments about displeasure with the CNN under Zucker, Discovery board member and controlling shareholder John Malone told CNBC’s David Faber in November he would prefer CNN morph back into the network that gained prominence in the 1990s.

“I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with and, you know, actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing,” Malone said to Faber.

Zucker, who appeared to be in a position to have a major role at a combined Discovery-WarnerMedia prior to his surprise resignation, steered CNN into a mix of hard news, commentary from anchors such as Don Lemon and Jake Tapper, and lighter weekend shows, such as “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” and “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.”

Licht will allow CNN personalities to be themselves, but he also isn’t afraid to tell talent what they need to hear, according to Ryan Kadro, who also worked with Licht at CBS and took over “CBS This Morning” when Licht departed.

Kadro credited Licht with getting Colbert to be “his more authentic self,” citing the November 2016 episode that aired when Donald Trump won the presidential election as the turning point for the show gaining an identity. Kadro also gave credit to Licht for choosing Gayle King as a co-host of “CBS This Morning” when she’d previously had no news anchoring experience.

“That was all Chris,” Kadro said.

Along with news division chairman Jeff Fager and CBS president David Rhodes, Licht focused “CBS This Morning” on hard news rather than softer features. Hosted by King, Charlie Rose and Norah O’Donnell, the show made significant ratings gains on NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” by 2016.

Hard news, softer touch

While Licht’s shift toward hard news on CBS’ early show mirrors Malone’s wishes for CNN, Licht’s gift for allowing talent to show their true personalities may contradict with broadcasting news in more non-partisan ways — especially if Trump runs again for the presidency in 2024.

Zucker also specialized in getting CNN’s talent to show their true selves, which manifested in reporters calling out Trump’s lies and misstatements in increasingly assertive ways throughout his time in office.

Zucker has been a role model for Licht, said one former colleague. That’s potentially good news for CNN employees, who have vociferously supported Zucker in recent weeks and praised his leadership.

When Licht came to CBS, he immediately went on a “listening tour” with existing staff to find out what was working and what wasn’t, said Kadro. That may be particularly important right away at CNN, given the losses of Zucker and Gollust, who was seen internally by some CNN staffers as a likely eventual replacement for Zucker.

“I plan to do a lot of listening,” Licht said in a memo he wrote to current CNN staff. “Together, we will double-down on what’s working well and quickly eliminate what’s not.”

Still, Licht made a point to put the word “news” in all capital letters in a memo he wrote to CNN staff Monday — seemingly echoing Malone’s comments that CNN should redirect toward straight news coverage.

“I know you have a lot of questions,” Licht wrote in a memo to CNN staff. “Perhaps the biggest one is how will CNN change? The honest answer is that I don’t know yet. David Zaslav has given me one simple directive: To ensure that CNN remains the global leader in NEWS as part of Warner Bros. Discovery.”

WATCH: CNN’s Jeff Zucker made the decision to resign, says AT&T CEO John Stankey

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