NEW YORK – As his executive producer, Chris Licht, prepares to take over as the new chief of CNN, Stephen Colbert joked late Monday that its name will now stand for Colbert News Network.
Despite some expected ribbing, Colbert offered a heartfelt sendoff, telling Licht that “I love you.”
After a career that had been entirely in news, Licht was appointed executive producer of the “Late Show” in 2016 after a rocky first year with Colbert at the helm. He steadied the ship behind the scenes and the show jumped to the top of the ratings, propelled by the host's biting takedowns of then-President Donald Trump.
On Monday, Discovery CEO David Zaslav announced that Licht will replace Jeff Zucker as head of CNN, likely in May. That's when Discovery's corporate takeover of Warner Media, CNN's parent company, is expected to be complete.
Prior to joining Colbert, Licht had been executive producer of the “CBS This Morning” news show and, before that, helped develop and produced “Morning Joe” with Joe Scarborough at MSNBC.
“Six years ago when I met Chris over drinks, he seemed right for the job,” Colbert said on his show, “but, this is true, I wasn't sure if I would like him.”
Colbert said he and the “Late Show” crew were show biz types, and “Chris is not.”
But he said Licht approached the job with humility and showed the difference between being a boss and a leader.
“I didn't know whether I'd like him, but six years later I love you,” he said, addressing Licht, who stood just offstage. “I love you not for what you did for us, because that will continue. I love you for the man you are, the doting, thoughtful and loving father and husband to your family and the dear friend to me for the rest of my life.”
Licht will face some immediate challenges at CNN, among them taking over a managerial role at a level far above what he's done before. He'll lead a team rocked by the messy departure of Zucker, with a hole that needs to be filled in its prime-time lineup following the firing of Chris Cuomo, and the launch of the CNN+ streaming service.
Licht wasn't made available for interviews on Monday, but wrote in a memo to CNN employees that he was "a journalist at heart. While I have enjoyed every minute at the ‘Late Show,’ I am joining CNN because I feel a genuine pull to return to news at such a critical moment in history.”
News of Licht's selection had spread widely over the weekend before Discovery's confirmation on Monday.
“I think he's a perfect fit over there,” Scarborough told The Associated Press in an interview on Monday. “He's a great combination of a producer who has vision and a no-nonsense guy who gets things done.”
Scarborough also said that Licht is the right person to reemphasize news over opinion at CNN.
That's been a potential change in direction that has been talked about but not explicitly stated as a goal. The idea gained traction when influential cable executive John Malone, a top stockholder in Discovery, said in an interview in November that he would “like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism in started with.”
CNN anchors have been more freely stating opinions on the air, particularly since the onset of the Trump administration. Opinionated talk is a big part of the business model at Fox News Channel and MSNBC.
When Licht was running “Morning Joe,” Scarborough said that while the host and some guests brought on to offer their opinions did so, Licht did not want that from reporters.
“He's a straight shooter,” he said. “I couldn't tell you whether Willie Geist and Chris are Republican or Democrat — and they're both good friends that I worked with for 15 years, with Chris 17 years.”
Zucker was forced out earlier this month, after admitting that he had violated corporate rules by not revealing his romantic relationship with a CNN marketing executive, Allison Gollust. Gollust later exited the company, too.
Licht said in the memo he knew that CNN staff wanted to know how the network will change.
“The honest answer is that I don't know yet,” he said. “David Zaslav has given me one simple directive: To ensure that CNN remains the global leader in NEWS.”
Licht's wife, Jenny, worked for 10 years at CNN in several roles, including as a supervisory producer for Anderson Cooper's show. Licht, praised by Zaslav as a “survivor,” wrote a book about recovering from a brain hemorrhage in 2010.