In Mark Thompson, Warner Bros. Discovery probably hired the perfect person to save CNN. But even the former president and CEO of the New York Times will have his hands full with this one: In 2023, CNN is so far behind its cable news competition.
In primetime, the most important part of the day for advertising, Nielsen ranks CNN third of three in overall viewers and the key 25-54 demographic. In total viewers, it’s not even close: CNN (583,000 viewers, on average) has less than half MSNBC (1.226 million) and less than a third of Fox News Channel’s league-leading haul (1.862 million).
CNN tightens the ranks a bit across the entire day’s programming, but it is still (un)comfortably in last place among total viewers. In the key news demo, MSNBC settles for bronze — a mere 6,000 viewers behind CNN.
Fox’s giant 2023 declines are generally on par with — or even harsher than — CNN’s, but the conservative cable news channel can afford to take the hit. CNN cannot — especially when its liberal competition, MSNBC, is having quite the consistent year.
In other words, things at CNN are… not good. Just ask Chris Licht, who previously made it all of about 13 months in the top role. (He still outlasted CNN+ by 12 months.)
While Licht inherited a loser (and CNN+), things got far worse for CNN under his tenure. Already-poor ratings outpaced declines at the competition. There were other missteps as well, like the morning show debacle, the handling of Don Lemon’s firing, the disastrous Donald Trump town hall, and that ill-advised Atlantic profile.
During the salad days immediately following the spring 2022 formation of Warner Bros. Discovery, president and CEO David Zaslav had taken to calling CNN the company’s “crown jewel.” It is decidedly not that now — but if anyone can restore the brand’s equity, it’s Thompson.
At the Times, Thompson shepherded the world’s largest digital business and doubled its digital revenues. At the BBC, he led the development of its iPlayer, the world’s first streaming service from a major broadcaster. He’s also been in the field; in the early days, Thompson was a researcher, director, and field producer in the BBC’s news division.
Thompson will assume the chairman and CEO roles of CNN worldwide, reporting to Zaslav, October 9. He’ll be “ultimately responsible for all CNN content,” as a Wednesday press release put it, running the brand’s strategy, channels, and all the programming across cable television, streaming, and digital.
One of Thompson’s early tasks will be to help CNN Max succeed where CNN+ failed. CNN Max, which launches September 27 in beta form on Max, will feature 24/7 live programming from CNN U.S. and CNN International, as well as original programming. CNN+ had some live news, but was mostly known for its oddball offshoot programming from CNN personalities. CNN+ also required a separate paid subscription from what was then called HBO Max; CNN Max will not.
Brad Altfest, managing director of media and entertainment at real-time engagement platform Agora, thinks Thompson is the right guy for the tall order.
“Thompson has experience turning traditional media brands and content digital,” he said in an email to IndieWire. “And did this for the New York Times in a period when the newspaper business was collapsing in much the same fashion as the linear broadcast itself is beginning to wind down. While content is king, the distribution modality matters.”
CNN has approximately 4,000 employees worldwide, all of whom will looking to Thompson to right this sinking ship. So will Zaslav, whose statement about the hire described Thompson as “a true innovator who has transformed for the digital age two of the world’s most respected news organizations. His strategic vision, track record in transformational leadership and sheer passion for news make him a formidable force for CNN and journalism at this pivotal time.”
“Pivotal,” indeed. If left-wing CNN can’t use the upcoming Republican primaries and 2024 presidential election — not to mention frontrunner GOP candidate Donald Trump’s trials — to mount a comeback, this whole thing may be over.
Thompson’s 40-plus-year career in news includes serving as president and CEO of The New York Times from 2012-20. Before that, Thompson was CEO and editor-in-chief of the BBC. (Where’s Thompson been since the Times, you ask? He’s been the chairman of Ancestry.com since December 2020. That gig may not directly translate here.)
CNN’s interim leadership team of Amy Entelis (EVP, talent and content development), David Leavy (COO), Virginia Moseley (EVP of editorial, CNN U.S.), and Eric Sherling (EVP of U.S. programming) will continue in their roles, reporting to Thompson.
Here is what Thompson sent to CNN employees Wednesday:
No doubt you’ve heard the news and read David Zaslav’s message confirming that I’m to be CNN’s next Chairman and CEO. I just wanted to add a few words of my own.
I can’t tell you how pleased and proud I am to be joining you after so many years of watching – and envying – your work from the outside. Over the decades, I’ve bumped into CNN teams on story after story from Washington, DC to Tiananmen Square. Two months ago I spent a day watching CNN’s spell-binding coverage of the Wagner rebellion, and I watched and read our major competitors too. That day confirmed an old truth to me: when it matters most, CNN is the best place to find out what’s happening. You always rise to the occasion.
As everyone knows, TV journalism is approaching peak disruption. We face pressure from every direction – structural, political, cultural, you name it. Like many other media organizations, CNN has recently felt some of the uncertainty and heartache that comes with all of that. There’s no magic wand that I or anyone else can wield to make this disruption go away. But what I can say is that where others see threat, I see opportunity – especially given CNN’s great brand and the strength of its journalism. I’ve spent most of the past twenty years figuring out with colleagues at some of the world’s other great news operations not just how to survive the revolution, but to thrive in it and gain new audiences and revenue streams. I aim to do the same at CNN. It won’t be my plan that wins the day but our plan, the plan we devise and implement together. Which is why, particularly in the early weeks, you’ll find me doing a lot more listening and learning than holding forth.
I want to add my personal thanks to the interim leadership team. Amy, David, Virginia and Eric have done a terrific job steering the ship over the past couple of months and I look forward to working with them.
My first official day in the office is 9 October but I’m planning to pop in a few times before then. So if you see a tall figure with an English accent and a loud laugh, you’ll know who it is.
All the best,