Can a new morning show with Don Lemon help turn CNN around?
To call 2022 an eventful year for CNN is an understatement.
The news network lost its top leader when Jeff Zucker quit for failing to disclose a relationship with his chief marketing officer. Senior management at new parent company Warner Bros. Discovery publicly questioned CNN’s political leanings and called for a move to the center. CNN’s streaming service was quickly shut down after its launch, ratings plummeted and the company’s mandate to cut costs for the newly merged company now has employees fearing layoffs by the end of the year.
The hits keep coming. On Friday, employees were told CNN no longer buys docu-series and movies from outside producers, who in recent years have given the network a library of award-winning (and advertiser-friendly) content like “RBG,” which chronicled the career of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
As the behind-the-scenes drama unfolds, 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 of CNN Chairman Chris Licht, who took the reins in April after a successful run at CBS, where he transformed the network’s morning news program and talk show. Late Night by Stephen Colbert.
“CNN This Morning” will be co-anchored by Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins – all familiar faces to network viewers. The program has the dual task of improving ratings in a competitive time frame while tackling the network image problem.
For years, CNN bore the brunt of former President Trump’s efforts to demonize any media that criticized him. Unfairly or not, this gave the impression to some that the network had shifted to the political left.
Statements by the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, David Zaslav, that the network should move away from political advocacy and appeal to Republicans and Democrats has liberal critics on high alert. Some have suggested on social media that CNN is suing conservative Fox News viewers. (It’s a tough case to make if you recently watched CNN anchor Jake Tapper spend 45 minutes listening to journalist Bob Woodward explain why Trump is a danger to democracy.)
One of the goals of “CNN This Morning” will be to build public confidence in the network as a trusted and unbiased merchant of truth. Collins, who joined the network as a White House correspondent in 2017, offers anecdotal evidence that it is possible.
Collins, 30, grew up in the politically dark red state of Alabama, where her family’s viewing preferences were ingrained.
“When I started working for 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 of his employees watch. It was fun to come home and see this story in the south of what CNN is dissing when they watch it.
Lemon, 56, joins “CNN This Morning” after airing a primetime show for eight years. He often harshly called out Trump on his agenda, leading to speculation he wouldn’t fit into the network’s plans to walk away from commentary. Instead, he finds himself at the front of Licht’s first attempt to present a vision of what CNN will take forward.
“It was largely bull…” Lemon said of the industry’s talk of his future. “People love palace intrigue. At no time was it given to me that I was going to lose my job and change anything about what I was doing.
Lemon is an all-around broadcaster, experienced in reporting breaking news while having enough pop culture savvy to fill in as a guest host for Wendy Williams’ daytime talk show.
“He’s a nice guy who’s very comfortable in front of a camera,” said Mark Whitaker, a veteran journalist and former cable news editor. “I think he has more of a morning personality than a prime time personality.”
Lemon has heard it before. “That’s what everyone says,” he said. “But we’ll see.”
Lemon also has an easy relationship with Harlow — they’re friends who were thrown together without a screen test or a pass. When Harlow, 40, announced last year that she was taking a nine-month hiatus from her daytime co-anchor position to earn a law degree from Yale, Lemon was the first co-worker to call her and to encourage him.
Lemon and Harlow 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 presenter is being a great reporter and Kaitlin is a great reporter — period,” Lemon said.
They all believe their roots outside of the New York and Washington media bubbles — Lemon is from Louisiana, while Harlow is from Minnesota — will help them connect with a wide range of viewers across the country.
“I think of my friends with their kids in the kitchen in Minneapolis as I interview a senator,” said Harlow, who also covered the business for the network.
Ryan Kadro, senior vice president of content strategy for CNN, said much of the network’s business reporting will be featured first on “CNN This Morning” and will help set the news agenda for the rest of the day.
“CNN This Morning” will also delve more into the network’s use of reporting, particularly from its international bureaus. The program will provide long live reporting on stories that develop overnight, leveraging CNN’s resources around the world and its stature as a global news brand.
Still, CNN competitors — and some insiders — are questioning the new management team’s decision to revamp a morning program as its top agenda.
Prime time is when cable news gets its biggest audience. CNN is far behind longtime leader Fox News in prime time with overall audiences, while battling with MSNBC for second place in the 25-54 age group that advertisers are looking for in news broadcasts.
In the morning, CNN competes not only with “Fox & Friends” on Fox News and “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, but also with the broadcast network’s three morning programs that offer local news and weather from their affiliates in addition of national coverage. The habits of morning viewers are hard to change, and the ratings generally move at a freezing pace.
CNN has a particularly steep hill to climb. In 2022, the network averaged 414,000 viewers with “New Day” — its lowest morning viewership since 2015 — compared to 1.36 million for “Fox & Friends” and 839,000 for “Morning Joe.”
But new management teams tend to adopt the formats they’ve been successful 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 its ratings grow every year until co-host Charlie Rose was fired. for allegations of sexual harassment. (The program has since been renamed “CBS Mornings”.)
Both programs have earned a reputation as smarter alternatives to the typically windy morning television genre.
“Given Chris’ background and creating really interesting meaningful programming in the mornings, it makes sense,” said Kadro, who worked with Licht at CBS News. “You have to start somewhere.”
Whitaker thinks the morning format gives CNN more flexibility to make a statement about who it wants to be. Prime-time cable news depends on political talking heads responding to daytime news most nights.
“You have a much wider palette to paint with in the morning in the type of subjects you can cover and the tone you can cover them in,” Whitaker said.
Kadro expects CNN to be patient with the program ratings. It took more than a year for “CBS This Morning” to gain traction with viewers after its launch in 2012.
CNN management has tried not to focus on the network’s declining viewership levels as Licht charts its strategy for the organization’s future. All three major cable news networks posted year-over-year ratings losses in the third quarter of 2022, but CNN fell the most with a 17% decline compared to 13% for Fox News and 11 % for MSNBC.
Nevertheless, the network still has a strong reputation with advertisers. Many sponsors don’t want to be associated with bold cable opinion shows that draw the largest audiences to conservative Fox News and progressive MSNBC.
As a result, CNN, the original cable news brand, is still able to command a higher rate for its advertising time, earning more dollars per thousand viewers than its competitors. Licht wants to preserve this advantage.
CNN’s stature also matters when its owners negotiate pay-TV distribution fees, which make up more than half of its revenue.
CNN has made a $1 billion annual profit in recent years under Zucker. It won’t reach that plateau this year in part because of the investment made in the CNN+ streaming service which was shut down by Warner Bros. Discovery just three weeks after its launch.
Can it get back above that level of profit while restoring its reputation as a direct news agency in a highly polarized political environment? The first chapter of this story begins on Tuesday.