New CNN boss Chris Licht is known as ‘Captain Intense’
Nearly 12 years ago, self-described “maniac producer” Chris Licht was lying in a hospital bed wondering if he was going to survive a brain aneurysm.
The personal health crisis was a defining moment for Licht, 50, who will become chairman and chief executive of CNN. Discovery Inc. announced Monday he will take over the reins of the news organization in May after the acquisition of its parent firm, WarnerMedia.
“Serious illness recalibrated me,” he wrote in his memoir. “It had brought a trove of knowledge, as if I had involuntarily paid a painful tuition for an elite education. It was about letting go of my fears.”
Licht has been with CBS since 2011, where he was executive vice president of special programming and oversaw “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” His career in TV news includes a stint at NBC, where he created the MSNBC program “Morning Joe.” Before taking over “Colbert,” Licht developed “CBS This Morning.”
Licht will report directly to Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav, who described his new hire as “a dynamic and creative producer, an engaging and thoughtful journalist, and a true news person.”
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Zaslav noted Licht’s experience as a producer of local, cable and national TV news. He will now be in charge of a global news organization with 4,000 employees.
The appointment comes during a period of upheaval at CNN, which was shaken by the exit of Jeff Zucker, who was forced to resign Feb. 2 after a nine-year run after failing to report a romantic relationship with Allison Gollust, his longtime aide and the network’s head of communications and marketing. Gollust also resigned from the network.
Licht’s rise in the news business came when Zucker was chief executive at NBC before it was acquired by Comcast.
Steve Capus, a former president of NBC News who worked with Licht, praised his hiring.
“He’s grounded in journalism,” Capus said. “They could have looked in a lot of different directions. He has a good track record. He will stick to the fundamentals of journalism, production and how to maintain relevance to the audience.”
Licht is a native of Connecticut, where he grew up wanting to be in the TV news business. In his 2011 memoir, “What I Learned When I Almost Died: How a Maniac TV Producer Put Down His BlackBerry and Started to Live His Life,” he describes himself as a preteen hosting a weekly news program in front of a video camera in his basement.
Licht landed his first media job while still in school, working as a weekend disc jockey at a rock radio station. He graduated from Syracuse University and in 1995 joined KNBC in Los Angeles, where he worked on a nightly show covering the trial of O.J. Simpson.
The budding broadcaster later moved to New York and eventually joined MSNBC, where he was executive producer of “Scarborough Country,” the prime-time show with former Florida Rep. Joe Scarborough.
When MSNBC host Don Imus was fired from the network in 2007, Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were moved into the morning time period, with Licht at the helm in the control room. The conversation-driven Beltway-focused program has been a must-watch for political insiders ever since.
Licht’s job gave him access to some powerful friends, including Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric. He also became acquainted with Zaslav, who was an executive at NBC before joining Discovery.
In his memoir, the highly competitive Licht admits to being temperamental on the job. “Morning Joe” regular Mike Barnicle’s nickname for Licht was “Captain Intense.”
On April 28, 2010, the weekend of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he suffered a brain aneurysm. Brzezinski contacted then-Vice President Joe Biden — who had survived two brain aneurysms — to find the best doctors to treat Licht.
“We heard for quite some time that it was 50-50 as to whether he would pull through,” said Scarborough. “I called his dad, who is a doctor, and said, ‘You’d better come down here.’”
Licht’s memoir describes a visit from Zucker, then president of NBC, who urged the producer to prioritize his health. Zucker had successfully battled colon cancer years earlier.
“I won’t say that it slowed Chris down,” said Scarborough. “It rounded off a few sharp edges that we all have.”
Licht’s reputation as a decisive, no-nonsense producer and executive remains.
“Maybe he is more Zen when he goes home at night,” said a CBS colleague who was not authorized to comment publicly. “But he’s a guy who knows what he wants, and he wants it done the way he wants it.”
Licht built the first successful morning show for CBS News by creating a program around co-hosts Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell.
Taking a page from the “Morning Joe” playbook, “CBS This Morning” booked more serious guests and devoted less time to celebrity news than the other network morning shows. Ratings grew as a result.
Licht moved to “The Late Show” in 2016 after Colbert floundered in his first year as successor to David Letterman. Helped by the rising interest in news after the election of Donald Trump to the White House, the show rose to the top of the ratings in late night.
“Chris freed the creative people up to be creative,” the colleague said. “He gave Stephen confidence and told him he’d have the support of the network.”
Licht first met his wife, Jenny Blanco, when they both worked in local news on the West Coast. They became a couple while working on NBC’s coverage of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens.
Blanco went on to work at CNN as a producer and still occasionally freelances at the network.
Licht’s marriage has likely given him insights into CNN’s operation. But in a note sent to staff Monday and obtained by The Times, Licht said he is joining the company with an open mind.
“I know you have a lot of questions,” Licht wrote. “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.”
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