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CNN subscription service part of CEO Mark Thompson’s mission

A person walks past CNN headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia on November 17, 2022.

Brandon Bell | Getty Images

When former CNN CEO Chris Licht began running the news organization last year, his boss gave him an assignment: Discovery of Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav: Changing the network’s programming and tone to emphasize current affairs rather than “advocacy” journalism.

With Licht now fired, CNN’s new CEO, Mark Thompson, has a new mission: everything else.

Thompson, who starts at CNN on October 9, has held preliminary discussions with Zaslav and other members of CNN management about strategic ideas and priorities, according to people familiar with the matter, who declined to speak on the record because that the discussions were private. He has not made any decisions about CNN’s operations and will not do so until he has a chance to meet with staff and learn how CNN works, the sources said.

However, some areas of emphasis are clear. Thompson will focus on building digital subscription businesses around and creating programming aimed at younger audiences on CNN Max, the network’s live news service on the streaming service “Max ” from Warner Bros. Discovery, two of the people said.

Licht’s background was in programming, as he launched MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and “CBS This Morning” with Charlie Rose, Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King. Zaslav hired him as a television programmer – and eventually fired him after Licht lost the trust of his employees and failed to achieve winning ratings.

Much of Licht’s short reign, which lasted just over a year, was centered on depoliticizing CNN. Zaslav and Licht agreed that CNN had gained a left-leaning reputation and attempted to refocus the network as a middle-of-the-road channel that could appeal to both Democrats and Republicans. Licht and CNN’s leadership since his firing — a four-person team including Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, Eric Sherling and David Leavy — have overhauled CNN’s linear broadcasts, including launching a new morning show and programming revamped for prime time.

Licht struggled to win over CNN employees by deliberately taking a hands-off approach to differentiate his style from that of former CNN chief Jeff Zucker, who resigned in February 2022 after failing to disclose a consensual relationship with a colleague. Zaslav felt Licht was moving too slowly in making decisions and did not appropriately identify with CNN’s talent, according to people familiar with the matter. Licht believed he couldn’t be himself given Zaslav’s mandate to be a pragmatic leader who needed to reform CNN’s image and cut costs, the sources said. Licht has had to lay off hundreds of employees as part of a broader workforce reduction at Warner Bros. Discovery.

Mark Thompson, CEO of CNN


While Licht focused largely on linear programming, Thompson will focus on transforming CNN into a sustainable company for the next five years – a timeline he has already discussed with some members of CNN management, according to people familiar with the matter. case. The work to change CNN’s reputation is largely complete, according to people familiar with the thinking of Warner Bros. executives. Discovery.

How to cover Donald Trump, an issue that has defined Licht’s tenure, likely isn’t among Thompson’s top five priorities as he takes office, according to a person familiar with the matter. Current CNN executives believe they already have the infrastructure in place to appropriately handle the former president and current Republican primary nominee as the 2024 elections gather pace, the person said.

Entelis, Moseley, Sherling and Leavy all plan to stay at CNN as Thompson takes over as CEO, according to people familiar with the matter. All will report to Thompson.

A CNN spokesperson declined to comment on speculation about Thompson’s possible actions and strategy.

Digital strategy

Thompson’s last job was CEO of The New York Timesa position he held from 2012 to 2020. He grew The Times’ digital subscription business, launched in 2011, from fewer than 1 million subscribers to around 7 million before leaving the company in September 2020. During his tenure as CEO of the newspaper, shares rose from $9 to around $43, a gain of more than 375%.

CNN hasn’t had a clear digital strategy since Zaslav and Licht decided to kill CNN+ after just one month, in 2022. CNN+, at the time, was a little-watched streaming service that launched without much content. Former CNN chief Jeff Zucker and Andrew Morse, then CNN’s digital chief, hoped it would eventually become CNN’s version of The New York Times — a subscription news product that could offer more than just video.

Thompson will still have to chair CNN’s linear network, an entity that has declined with the erosion of the pay-TV package. But Zaslav is counting on using and its 149 million monthly unique visitors as a funnel to grow a digital subscription business, people familiar with the matter said.

One idea under discussion is to create multiple subscription products on specific topics within, which would remain paywall-free, the sources said. For customers who want all access, CNN could offer a discounted package. Paying a monthly subscription could unlock on-demand or live CNN programming on certain topics, give users access to particular pieces of in-depth or targeted journalism and provide other benefits.

Thompson could also explore ways to integrate Bleacher Report with, just as the New York Times did with The Athletic, the online sports media company he acquired last year for $550 million. dollars, according to a person familiar with the matter.

CNN Max Programming

Before joining The New York Times, Thompson was managing director – both managing director and editor-in-chief – of the British Broadcasting Corporation. He will have the chance to develop new shows at CNN Max, a tab of the larger Max streaming service from Warner Bros. Discovery.

With CNN Max, Thompson will attempt to program for a younger audience. CNN’s linear network largely appeals to adults aged 60 and over who still subscribe to traditional pay television.

Thompson will have an avenue to invest in CNN Max. CNN’s EBITDA – or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization – is expected to be closer to $1 billion in 2023 after falling to $750 million in 2022, when it hit $1 billion dollars in 2023. about $200 million in losses linked to CNN+, according to people familiar with the matter. Focus on the U.S. presidential election is also expected to improve advertising revenue in 2024.

For CNN to stay relevant, Thompson will need to find news programs geared toward millennials and younger viewers. I’ll look. Former CNN executives worried that news content would be swallowed up by a larger streaming service, believing it would be difficult to persuade viewers to avoid entertainment programs when both are on the same platform. This led Zucker and former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar to push for CNN+, a standalone streaming service.

CNN has already started brainstorming ideas to solve this problem, including potentially alerting Max viewers who watch on-demand entertainment to CNN’s latest news.

“It’s a game that still has a lot to play,” said JB Perrette, president and CEO of Warner Bros. streaming operations. Discovery, about the streaming news business last month in an interview with Variety. “No one has figured it out yet.”

That will be Thompson’s job.

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