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The CNN Chess Game Begins – Hollywood Reporter

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Four months after joining CNN, CEO Chris Licht begins to reshape the cable news channel, with a Don Lemon-led morning show paving the way for a near-complete overhaul of the network’s lineup.
By Alex Weprin
Media & Business Writer
To CNN employees, the most surprising thing about the channel’s morning show announcement was how surprising it was. 
CNN’s culture has, for years, been leaky, and big news has often found a way to trickle out. The morning shake-up, which will see Don Lemon depart 10 p.m. for the mornings, joined by veteran anchor Poppy Harlow and White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins, came as a shock to two CNN sources The Hollywood Reporter spoke to (some CNN staff were convinced Lemon would be shown the door by new management). 

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But maybe it shouldn’t have. Licht, after all, told CNN employees on a daily editorial call after the cancellation of Reliable Sources that they should tune out reporting on the channel, and that no one outside of himself and a select group of CNN executives had any insight into their programming plans and strategy. 
“Give it a minute, see how things develop, and then have feedback,” he said at the time. 
The morning show news underscored that, indeed, there is a new sheriff in town. 
But it is also the first critical new programming move made by Licht since joining CNN in May. 
While he has added a handful of contributors, and parted ways with Brian Stelter, Jeffrey Toobin and John Harwood, those decisions were, to adopt a chess term, gambits. An opening salvo that sets the stage for the real game. The new morning show is where the game really begins. 
“This is not an incremental change,” Licht wrote in a note to staff announcing the morning show plans, noting that in addition to the talent in front of the cameras, everything else, from the set to the format, will also be new. 
Indeed, the morning show has been one of Licht’s top priorities since joining the cable news channel. 
At the Warner Bros. Discovery upfront in May, just days after Licht officially started at the company, he announced that he would seek to “reimagine” mornings on CNN. 
“We are seeking to be a disrupter to the broadcast morning shows in this space, and we believe we have the resources to do it,” Licht said. 
It was no small claim, given Licht’s role in transforming the morning shows on both MSNBC (helping to create Morning Joe) and CBS This Morning, each of which have forged a different path than the entrenched morning programs, garnering loyal followings, if not first-place ratings. And at CNN Licht will also need to gain ground on Fox & Friends, the dominant morning show on cable.

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But the real strategy behind Licht’s morning maneuvering is the opportunities it creates. Yes, the Lemon-led morning show is a top priority for CNN, but plucking him from primetime and Harlow from the morning news hours gives Licht a chance to reshape eight hours of CNN’s daily coverage in one fell swoop. 
By the time he’s done, Licht will have transformed the 6-11 a.m. hours with new anchors and approaches, and reshaped primetime, which now has 9 and 10 p.m. wide open (not to mention 11 p.m., an hour in which CNN has vacillated between original programming and replays over the years). 
The moves made in primetime will send the clearest message about Licht and Warner Bros. Discovery’s intentions for CNN. Lemon and former 9 p.m. anchor Chris Cuomo were known to take strong positions and have big takes on the day’s news. The new lineup, whatever form it takes, is unlikely to follow that model.
“[Warner Bros. Discovery CEO] David Zaslav has given me one simple directive: To ensure that CNN remains the global leader in NEWS as part of Warner Bros. Discovery,” Licht wrote to staff in his first memo after his hire was announced (emphasis on “news” his).
And that is just the weekday schedule. Licht has also telegraphed plans to overhaul Sundays, which will be capped off by Chris Wallace’s interview program and a newsmagazine show. 
In short, expect there to be an entirely new CNN sooner than some might have predicted. 
Up until the morning show shocker, much of the speculation around CNN’s future has sprung from its association with President Trump. 

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Some of the talent most critical of Trump exited, and of course the comments by libertarian investor John Malone (about wanting CNN to “evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with”) have spooked staff, who feared that unflinching coverage of the current state of politics could be branded as partisan. 
But the morning show, which keeps Lemon not only in the picture but on a flagship show (albeit during a time slot that is considered less prestigious than primetime) suggests that Licht and his team still have some surprising moves to play. 
Lemon, for his part, has been seeking some change of his own at CNN in recent months, according to a source, and the morning show presented that opportunity.
After the Reliable cancellation, Licht warned staff that “there will be more changes, and you might not understand it or like it.”  
If CNN’s morning play is any indication, it is only the very beginning of the game.
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