Making Stephen Colbert a Hit Was Impressive. For CNN to Beat Fox News, Chris Licht Needs Miracles

"The Late Show" became a late-night king under Chris Licht, but the circumstances of that turnaround are nothing like what he faces at CNN.
Stephen Colbert and Chris Licht
Stephen Colbert and Chris Licht made a formidable team at "The Latem Show"

Chris Licht has a thing for the underdog. The future head of CNN Global helped Stephen Colbert snatch the late-night viewer crown right off of Jimmy Fallon’s messy spikes. Now he’s been cast in a similar role for CNN, which is currently in third place out of three.

Licht is a well-respected producer who launched “Morning Joe” on MSNBC and spearheaded “CBS This Morning” before buoying “The Late Show.” Against Fox News Channel and MSNBC, Licht faces — to put it kindly — an uphill battle.

In 2022, Fox News nearly triples CNN’s overall viewership throughout the entire day (6 a.m. to 6 a.m.). If that sounds bad, don’t look any closer: Fox’s primetime (8 p.m. to 11 p.m.) advantage is nearly 3.5 times the typical CNN audience. Runner-up MSNBC has a 20 percent advantage over CNN in total-day viewership and a 41 percent lead in primetime.

The news isn’t entirely grim. CNN is ahead of MSNBC among adults 25-54 — the key demographic for news programming. Even so, Fox News Channel still doubles CNN.

Licht has a proven ability to take a loser — or at least, a not-winner — and reverse their fortunes. Colbert’s “Late Show” launched September 8, 2015. By the time Licht joined as the program’s executive producer in April 2016, the CBS late-night series’ Nielsen average was 2.65 million total viewers. That was slightly ahead of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” (2.32 million), but badly trailed “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” (3.54 million).

By the final week of January 2017 — a date that also represented the start of Donald Trump’s presidency — Colbert’s viewership eclipsed Fallon’s and it’s been that way ever since. However, the circumstances of that turnaround are nothing like what he faces at CNN.

The “Late Show” success story isn’t one of growing viewership; it’s about maintaining audience in the face of linear-TV rating declines. From his first day on Colbert to now, he’s produced more than 1,000 shows that average 2.7 million viewers each. As an increase from 2.65 million, that’s nearly flat.

That doesn’t detract from Licht’s achievement, which ranks somewhere between impressive and a miracle. Kimmel lost 19 percent of his audience, averaging 1.89 million total viewers each night since May 2016. Fallon, which averages 2.15 million viewers per night, is down 39 percent.

Of course, the turnaround isn’t all Licht: Much credit goes to Colbert, who inherited a losing hand from David Letterman but also created the opportunity for a dramatic turnaround.

CNN needs some — or a lot — of that kind of drama. Licht’s hire is meant to ameliorate the other kind, which was created by the violent exit of his predecessor, Jeff Zucker. Here, the odds are in his favor: One current CBS colleague told IndieWire that Licht is “a stand-up guy.” In a memo obtained by IndieWire and sent to CNN staff Monday, Licht, described himself as “a journalist at heart.”

“Late Show” made strides by hammering Trump early and often and balancing comedy with meaningful conversations. Fallon made the mistake of tussling then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s hair and by the time he publicly expressed regret over the viral moment it was too little, too late.

At CNN, Licht inherits a last-place cable news network almost entirely reliant on major breaking news to gain temporary Nielsen ground. The Trump circus benefited CNN as well as “The Late Show,” an opportunity that President Biden does not provide. He’s fodder for Fox News, while liberal-skewing channels CNN and MSNBC already split the blue-voting demo.

When Licht starts his new role around May 1, he will oversee a news operation with a complex and ever-changing mandate and face competition that’s unlikely to make Fallonian missteps. Licht’s start date depends on closing the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger in April and forming a new publicly traded company, Warner Bros. Discovery. Pretty much the only hurdle remaining is a Discovery shareholder vote, which an insider told IndieWire should be a slam dunk.

“I have known and admired Chris for over 15 years and believe he is the best person to lead this incredible organization,” Zaslav said in a note of his own distributed to CNN staff on Monday and obtained by IndieWire. “Chris is a dynamic and creative producer, an engaging and thoughtful journalist, and a true news person. He has more than two decades of broadcast experience across local, cable and national news. He has been in the field, in the control room and on the set. He is a highly principled individual who is trusted, hard-working and makes every organization stronger, more innovative, and more cohesive.”

In Licht’s email, he told his new staff, “I know you have a lot of questions. Perhaps the biggest one is how will CNN change? The honest answer is that I don’t know yet. David Zaslav has given me one simple directive: To ensure that CNN remains the global leader in NEWS as part of Warner Bros. Discovery.” How Licht can make CNN a leader by the numbers remains to be seen.

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