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CNN boss to producers: Pump the brakes on “Breaking News”

Television executive Chris Licht appears in an undated handout image.
Television executive Chris Licht appears in an undated handout image. (Image courtesy CBS/Paramount Global, Graphic by The Desk)

Flip through the cable news channels these days, and the two words you’re likely to encounter are “Breaking News.”

Chris Licht, the new man in charge at CNN, is hoping that will be a thing of the past.

Last week, Licht circulated a memo to CNN employees urging them to cool their use of the phrase, limiting it only to news stories or coverage that urges viewers to “stop what you are doing and watch.”

“Its impact has become lost on the audience,” Licht wrote in the memo, according to a column published by the New York Times on Sunday. The new executive said CNN should be in the business of “informing, not alarming, our viewers.”

The strategy is a departure from one used by Licht’s predecessor, Jeffrey Zucker, who shifted CNN from a middle-of-the-road news network to one where politics dominated the schedule and where every news story was a breaking one. This became all the more apparent two years into Zucker’s tenure when CNN broke the news that a Malaysia Airlines plane had gone missing over the southern Indian Ocean — and then continued to cover the missing plane for several months, with its talent going so far as to question whether the plane was sucked into a black hole.

For the first few years of Zucker’s stewardship, CNN sank to the bottom of the ratings, only recovering when former President Donald Trump took control of the White House in 2017. CNN rode the Trump presidency to an all-time ratings high — only to have its fortunes reversed when Trump lost the election in November 2020.

Zucker ultimately resigned from CNN last year over a consensual relationship that he did not disclose with senior leadership at CNN’s then parent company, WarnerMedia (which, at the time, was a subsidiary of AT&T). WarnerMedia appointed Licht to succeed Zucker two months before the company was spun off from AT&T and merged with Discovery.

Last Thursday, Licht said he intends to instill changes at CNN at a slow pace. But he’s already made some sharp turns, including a decision to scrap CNN’s fledgling streaming service, CNN Plus, which was closed less than a month after it launched.

Other changes will come over time, including a revamped Sunday lineup that will include a Chris Wallace-led Sunday show and a new 60 MInutes-style news magazine program, the New York Times said.

Licht also reportedly wants to relaunch CNN’s early morning news program to make it more conversation-driven with a panel of revolving, but regular, experts. The plan sounds similar to “Morning Joe,” the politics-focused MSNBC morning panel program that Licht helped launch in 2007.

When the network does cover breaking news during its regular broadcast day, Licht says the phrase should be reserved for actual breaking news.

The New York Times said his feedback has already been incorporated into CNN’s internal style guide, with the “Breaking News” graphic limited to just one hour of screen time after a story breaks, “unless there is an unfolding live story like a school shooting, major hurricane or death of a world leader.”

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).