Can ‘CNN This Morning’ Deliver the Hit CEO Chris Licht Needs?

CNN chief executive Chris Licht is betting big on his handpicked co-host combo of Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Katilin Collins to deliver a win with his morning show reboot, “CNN This Morning.”

As more layoffs loom and his primetime anchor experiments produce unease in the company and tepid ratings so far, Licht is in desperate need of solid results that can win over the trust of a weary and wary staff who have been shaken by the changes Licht has made since he took over the news network last spring under new corporate owner Warner Bros. Discovery.

A change in CNN’s morning was definitely necessary. Over the past year, “New Day” averaged just 414,000 total viewers — its smallest morning audience since 2015 — compared with 839,00 for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and 1.36 million for FOX News’ “Fox & Friends.”

As one CNN insider told TheWrap, “It’s surprising given how horribly this most recent iteration of the morning show hosted by John Berman and Brianna Keilar has performed that they wouldn’t take longer to prep the reboot.”

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Indeed, Licht fast-tracked an overhaul of “CNN This Morning” to get in front of audiences before next week’s midterm elections. The announcement of the new trio was made on Sept. 15 and Lemon signed off from his primetime show on Oct. 8. “This Morning” launched Tuesday in a temporary studio set up on the “CNN Election Center” set, according to one individual close to the production, while the new production space for the show is still under construction.

A CNN representative declined to comment for this article.

Licht’s influence from his former tenure at “CBS This Morning” could be felt in CNN’s premiere episode, which offered a mixed bag of harder-hitting world news and politics along with a splash of entertainment and lifestyle reports. The show covered Iran’s intent to send missiles to Russia, an update on the Paul Pelosi attack, Taylor Swift breaking Billboard records and a segment with Dr. Sanjay Gupta about “why people fear change.”

Insiders tell TheWrap that the success of Licht’s morning reboot has value beyond boosting the company’s bottom line. “Some of us staffers just want to see some positive outcomes to the slew of changes being made so that there’s an overall trust restored in leadership,” one veteran CNN reporter told TheWrap.

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The slew of anchor changes to the primetime lineup so far have failed to produce any solid hits out the gate. The most notable and buzziest change was Washington anchor Jake Tapper’s move from his 4 p.m. slot to the plum 9 p.m. perch through midterms as part of Licht’s primetime “experiment.”

“CNN Tonight With Jake Tapper” is averaging about 700,000 viewers a night and isn’t building (or retaining) on its “AC360” lead-in, which averages 1.2 million viewers. So far, Tapper is being outperformed by both MSNBC’s “Alex Wagner Tonight” (1.5 million total viewers) and Fox News’ “Hannity” (2.6 million total viewers). CNN and MSNBC are duking it out for No. 2 in the all-important news demo of viewers aged 25-54, with averages of 142,000 vs. 156,000, respectively. Fox News consistently doubles that number in the demo.

Ratings aside, many of the creative on-air choices have confounded some staffers. Tapper, who’s best at delivering straight news and serious interviews, has been playing with the format. One night saw him awkwardly handing off to “CNN Tonight” co-hosts Laura Coates and Alisyn Camerota with a thesaurus in his hand as he chose a new descriptive adjective to describe each of his colleagues.

“Chris asked Jake to take over the 9 p.m. slot temporarily through midterms and there’s no expectation on either side that the evening slot would become permanent,” said one CNN insider with knowledge of the situation.

Time will tell if the morning block can produce better results than Licht’s primetime shows.

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