Warner Bros Discovery CEO Zaslav Tosses CNN's Licht Under the Bus

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Just 13 months after taking over the dual role of board chair and CEO of CNN, Chris Licht has “stepped down, effective immediately.” Warner Bros. Discovery Inc. (NASDAQ: WBD) President and CEO David Zaslav reportedly told network staffers that he met with Licht Wednesday morning and that Licht was leaving the building.

Licht most recently caught a lot of fire from the news staff and some media critics for CNN’s live broadcast of a town hall featuring former President Donald Trump. A long article by The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta details Licht’s story year at CNN. One thing Licht felt sure of, according to Alberta’s 15,000-word story ($$) was Zaslav’s support for the changes Licht was trying to bring about at the network.

The New York Times published a couple of sentences from a recording of Zaslav’s remarks to CNN staff: “For a number of reasons things didn’t work out, and that’s unfortunate. It’s really unfortunate, and ultimately that’s on me. And I take full responsibility for that.”

But Zaslav, our worst CEO of 2022, has shown a knack for finding a sacrifice when it’s his own neck on the line. He blamed the weak results of the merger he engineered between AT&T’s media operation and Discovery on AT&T’s mismanagement after he was paid $246 million in 2021 for putting the deal together. He fired a bunch of people to show he was serious about keeping costs under control.

Zaslav also torched the HBO brand after renaming WBD’s streaming service “Max.” Dumping one of the most recognizable media brands around was widely regarded as a foolish move.

As The Atlantic story notes, however, getting crosswise with John Malone, WBD’s largest shareholder, could do Zaslav no good and, the blowback from CNN’s Trump town hall was certain to ruffle Malone who contributed $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration festivities and more money to Trump’s 2020 losing campaign.

In a November 2021 interview with CNBC  he said he wanted to see CNN “actually have journalists” again. Malone also cited Fox News as a model:

Fox News, in my opinion, has followed an interesting trajectory of trying to have news news, I mean some actual journalism, embedded in a program schedule of all opinions. And I think they’ve been relatively successful with a service like Bret Baier, and Brit Hume before him, that try to distinguish news from opinion.

In Zaslav’s opinion, Licht was not a likely candidate to give Malone what he wanted.

WBD stock was up about 4.5% shortly before noon Wednesday, at around $12.65. The stock’s 52-week range is $8.82 to $17.65. Over the past 12 months, the shares are down more than 26%.

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