Warner Bros. Discovery’s search for an outsider to run CNN has taken it to two high-profile veterans of the BBC.
Semafor broke the news last week that a leading contender for the job is Mark Thompson, the former New York Times and BBC chief. But the company has also spoken to another prominent British journalist, James Harding, who led BBC News from 2013 to 2017 and then founded the British digital media outlet Tortoise.
The news of an imminent appointment has come as a surprise inside CNN, where many staffers expected the current, three-person interim leadership to last until the 2024 U.S. election. But hopefuls have been lobbying Zaslav for months, in at least one case through his lawyer and confidant Allen Grubman, a person familiar with the process said.
But Thompson — who presided over high-wire television in London and led a corporate turnaround at the Times — is Zaslav’s leading candidate for the role, a person familiar with the recruiting process confirmed after Puck first reported Friday that Zaslav “has made up his mind.”
The challenges that the next leader of CNN will inherit have been in full view over the past several weeks as the streaming television business convulsed and the network lost market share to MSNBC amid the rolling indictments of former President Donald Trump.
While CNN previously competed with MSNBC on big Trump-related breaking news days, the liberal network has begun to pull away significantly on these days: MSNBC was number one the night of Trump’s arrest in Georgia, while Rachel Maddow’s Hillary Clinton interview on the night of Trump’s indictment in Georgia drew nearly 4 million viewers. By contrast, CNN has barely broken one million viewers in certain primetime hours, a far cry from the network’s primetime ratings during the first years of the Trump administration. At one point during Wednesday night’s broadcast covering former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s surrender to a jail in Fulton County, Georgia, CNN broke away to cover the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin — a reasonable news choice, but an obvious ratings killer.
Surrendering those viewers was, at least for a time, part of the plan. Zaslav and former CEO Chris Licht decided to cede the anti-Trump viewers former CNN chief Jeff Zucker won from MSNBC, in hopes of restoring CNN’s centrist brand and winning back some conservative viewers. But the strategy has failed to find a new audience of people who watch cable television, and I’ve sensed palpable apprehension within the network about the failure to benefit from the Trump indictment bump.
Meanwhile, after scrapping CNN+ last year, earlier this week, the company announced that CNN would launch a 24-hour livestream channel on the streaming platform Max.
CNN’s next president will face several daunting questions: Will the network tack back to a more confrontational stance on Donald Trump to goose ratings? Can the 24-hour stream inside Max possibly justify its cost versus cheaper and more popular programming? And will the Warner chief be able to convince a high-profile and respected candidate to take a job that will likely involve years of cost-cutting and layoffs as the cable business inevitably shrinks?
Still, the pull of the iconic American news brand is strong — perhaps especially to British media figures. And the breadth of the search reflects a moment when media giants have been looking for executives outside the traditional ladder of their own top producers. Last year, NBC News hired Rebecca Blumenstein, a New York Times veteran with no senior level television experience, to head up the network.
- In last week’s media newsletter, Semafor reported that former CEO Chris Licht had called to congratulate several on-air personalities for promotions they received in the new scheduling lineup.
- If Thompson is tapped to lead CNN, he could also bring a unique management style that once included biting a staffer. “In those days it seemed quite acceptable for senior people to bite junior colleagues,” a colleague said at the time.
- Harding’s hiring would also represent another return to prominence in US media for a top executive who lived through the phone hacking scandal at News Corp. Harding resigned in 2012 after presiding over aggressive coverage of his own company. Rebekah Brooks, who was charged and acquitted of phone hacking, had been poised for a top role in the ill-fated talks merger between News Corp and Rupert Murdoch’s other company, Fox Corp.