Chris Licht’s new position as the chief of CNN wasn’t intended to start until May, but he addressed more than 400 CNN+ employees last week, both in-person and via remote video stream. Dozens of additional CNN workers had obtained the remote video stream link, which had been passed around, to listen in on the new boss’s remarks.
The introductory remarks to most workers were not what Litch had initially anticipated when he accepted to succeed Jeff Zucker at the beginning of the year. He informed staff that the subscription-based streaming service CNN+, which they had been building for the previous 6 to 9 months, would be shut down on April 30, just a month following its debut. He admitted that several individuals could lose their employment.
Licht, who will take over as CNN’s chief on May 2, resigned as “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert’s” executive producer. According to those who heard him speak on Thursday, he appeared vigorous and empathic.
Interestingly this was the first time some CNN+ employees had heard from him, but for others, it wasn’t. Two days early, he stopped by and toured the CNN New York officers and visited the 16th floor, the CNN+’s home. It was surprising that he announced that they would shut down the standalone streaming platform two days later.
It is expected that around 350 CNN+ employees will lose their jobs, but they can reapply for other positions at CNN. Litch said that this was a distinctively shitty situation.
An odd mix of business deal-making, management disagreements, surprise resignations, and regulatory limits contributed to CNN+’s premiere on March 29, 2022, and its sudden demise.
According to sources privy to the issue said, Zucker and assistant Andrew Morse, the head of global digital business at CNN who later became the chief of CNN+, explored the creation of a streaming platform at the start of 2020, months ahead of Jason Kilar joining WarnerMedia as CEO.
Morse & Zucker discovered a digital advocate in Kilar. He was hired to transition WarnerMedia into a streaming video firm instead of one focused on providing programming to cable providers and cinemas.
The founders had envisioned CNN+ to become a subscription-based service that would host podcasts, videos, and CNN entertainment programming and interviews.
Interestingly, CNN felt that it had the edge over rivals, and Kilar was optimistic that the media company required a digital subscription strategy. CNN had even hired McKinsey consulting company to assist with CNN+ operations with Zucker, Morse, and Kilar handling strategy.
However, there was an unexpected turn of the event after AT&T moved to spin off WarnerMedia and combine its Discovery Communication following a deal disclosed in May 2021. Neither CNN nor WarnerMedia were consulted in the merger negotiations that happened in secrecy between Discovery Communication’s CEO David Zaslav and AT&T CEO John Stankey.
The combination of the entities gave Zucker second wind, and rather than reporting to AT&T, he was in line for a role under Zaslav, who was a longtime friend. Zucker decided not to leave at the end of the year and focused on CNN+ in the summer. He was entrusted with setting CNN+’s programming and strategy.
The launch date was set for Q1 2022, and Zucker started hiring staffers. Promotion services were left to Allison Gollust, the Chief Marketing Officer of CNN Worldwide. They planned to unveil 8-12 hours of live programming, and Zucker started looking for show anchors. Zucker wanted to launch CNN+ in January, but there were technical issues, and they rescheduled the launch to the end of March.
Surprisingly the merger deal got regulatory approval faster than anticipated, with the deal expected to close on April 11, which put the launch date weeks before the merger. Unfortunately, Zucker resigned on February 2, 2022, because of an undisclosed relationship with Gollust, but that didn’t change the launch trajectory.