Mark Thompson, a veteran media executive who led the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the New York Times through periods of intense growth during turbulent times for broadcasters and news publishers, is expected to do the same at CNN, starting in October.
On Wednesday, executives at Warner Bros Discovery (WBD) confirmed Thompson will take the reigns as chairman and CEO of CNN Worldwide, replacing Chris Licht, the former “Late Night with Stephen Colbert” executive producer who was fired from the role following an embarrassing profile published by The Atlantic over the summer.
“There isn’t a more experienced, respected or capable executive in the news business today than Mark, and we are thrilled to have him join our team and lead CNN Worldwide into the future,” David Zaslav, the CEO of WBD, said on Wednesday. “Mark is a true innovator who has transformed for the digital age two of the world’s most respected news organizations. His strategic vision, track record in transformational leadership and sheer passion for news make him a formidable force for CNN and journalism at this pivotal time.”
Thompson served as the CEO and editor-in-chief of the BBC from 2004 to 2012, helping the broadcaster navigate through a digital transition affecting the United Kingdom’s flagship public radio and television outlets. Among other things, Thompson was instrumental in the development and launch of BBC iPlayer, the first streaming service from a major international broadcaster, which still operates today.
He left the BBC in 2012 for the New York Times, where he helped pull the newspaper out of a slump by executing on various digital-first strategies that have helped the company offset declines in traditional print advertising and subscription revenue.
WBD is hoping that Thompson replicates that success at CNN, which has fallen into a ratings death spiral following the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. The network saw a significant uptick in viewership during the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump, thanks in large part to corporate executives fostering an environment where CNN’s journalists were encouraged to confront officials within the Trump administration in a way that made the network seem less like a news outlet and more like a reality show.
Following the merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery Networks in 2021, Zaslav installed Licht to serve as the top executive at CNN and restore political and journalistic balance at the network. CNN’s top on-air talent, having spent several years engaged in heated and confrontational political rhetoric, bristled at the thought of having to do accurate and accountable journalism once again. Many rejected Licht’s calls to move more toward the center, and media pundits wondered if it was even possible, given the cable news landscape of today.
While CNN tried to figure things out, Fox News and MSNBC dominated in the ratings with their unique brands of partisan journalism (MSNBC on the left, Fox on the right). The strategies proved more-successful than whatever CNN was churning out at the moment, and while CNN had small victories while covering the various criminal indictments of former president Trump, the network’s overall coverage wasn’t enough to convince people to switch away from the two cable news networks that serve up the comfort food of news packages that keep America locked in to one of two political silos.
WBD is hoping Thompson reverses these bad fortunes, though it isn’t clear if he will pave the way for CNN to recalibrate itself into a political news powerhouse or continue on its centric path. CNN cannot have it both ways.
“I couldn’t be more excited about the chance to join CNN after years of watching it and competing against it with a mixture of admiration and envy,” Thompson said on Wednesday. “The world needs accurate, trustworthy news now more than ever, and we’ve never had more ways of meeting that need at home and abroad. Where others see disruption, I see opportunity. I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and get down to work with my new colleagues to build a successful future for CNN.”