The next star anchor of CNN may not even work there yet.
Executives at the Warner Bros. Discovery-backed news outlet are considering the prospect of hiring a host from outside the network’s roster of correspondents to lead at least an hour in primetime, according to a person familiar with the matter. The plan surfaces after CNN CEO Chris Licht told a town-hall assemblage of CNN staffers Tuesday in New York that he intended to turn his focus to CNN’s 9 p.m. hour after debuting a new morning program led by Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins.
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CNN declined to make executives available for comment.
While there is no guarantee the idea will come to fruition, its existence suggests the network is mulling a return to a previous era. CNN has long worked with hosts such as Larry King or Piers Morgan, who typically had little to do with the CNN newsroom, but commanded the 9 p.m. hour. King and Morgan did less traditional newscasting and more direct interviews with newsmakers and celebrities.
Licht suggested Tuesday that CNN’s primetime hours won’t be used for a traditional news broadcast. He indicated he would like to earmark some of that time for so-called “perspective programming” or “informed opinion,” according to people familiar with what was said at the town-hall meeting, which was moderated by anchor Alisyn Camerota. The executive indicated he was looking for a host who could push back on talking points and make sure no one who appeared on camera got “a free pass,” one of these people said. At the same time, he told staffers he wasn’t looking for an ideologue.
CNN has grappled with challenges in primetime for months. Its 9 p.m. hour, once led by Chris Cuomo, has been without a regular host for months, and everyone from Michael Smerconish to Kasie Hunt has taken a stab at leading it. Meanwhile, the move of Don Lemon to mornings means CNN now has another two hours to fill. CNN’s primetime viewership among people between 25 and 54, the audience most desired by advertisers in news programming, was off 21% in the third quarter, though its average in the category was better than MSNBC’s.
The network recently tested Jake Tapper as an anchor at 9 p.m., crafting a show that featured an opening monologue and several prominent newsmaker interviews. Laura Coates and Alisyn Camerota then co-anchored two hours between 10 p.m. and midnight, mixing it up with a panel of guests who talked about the issues of the day.
Yet Tapper is returning to his late-afternoon program, “The Lead,” CNN revealed earlier this month. By several accounts, Licht had settled on Tapper as the new anchor for the hour, still one of the most-watched time slots in cable news. But the anchor had cautioned he was concerned about what the move might mean for his personal life and family, according to two people familiar with the matter. Tapper has long anchored the late-afternoon program, and moderated the Sunday-news show “State of the Union,” with Dana Bash.
CNN has made no formal announcement about the show anchored by Camerota and Coates, but Camerota has been spotted this week co-anchoring a mid-afternoon edition of “CNN Newsroom,” her previous assignment. A person familiar with the matter said both anchors were expected to contribute across CNN’s schedule and indicated they might turn up again in primetime around the Thanksgiving holiday. Coates has been in consideration for an evening slot for years, according to people familiar with the matter, but her move to getting a permanent role was scuttled by the advance of the coronavirus pandemic.
One facet of CNN’s primetime lineup remains in place. Anderson Cooper, who usually anchors 8 p.m., may take on as many as two hours for the foreseeable future.
A search for a new anchor who currently works outside the company is likely to spur chatter about any number of possible hires. Brian Williams, the former NBC News and MSNBC anchor, left NBCUniversal at the end of last year, and Shepard Smith, famous for a down-the-middle approach to the news, recently parted ways with CNBC after it abruptly canceled his early-evening show. It is not clear that Licht would want to hire someone with a traditional news background.
During the meeting, Licht acknowledged that morale had fallen at CNN, which is facing the prospect of job cuts sometime before the end of the year. The former WarnerMedia has been through two different owners in recent years. Both AT&T and Warner Bros. Discovery have had to grapple with massive amounts of debt, and executives at CNN’s current parent have been vocal about their desire to cut costs.
Licht told CNN staffers that he knew the organization had taken a number of “gut punches” and indicated he was upset that he now had to deliver another one in the form of staff reductions.
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