CNN’s new COO hire underscores bond between CEO Chris Licht and WBD boss David Zaslav

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In this article

Chris Licht, Chairman and CEO of CNN Worldwide.
Courtesy: CNN

CNN CEO Chris Licht is about to get some help running his news network from a longtime close confidant of Warner Bros. Discovery chief executive officer David Zaslav.

Licht has hired David Leavy as CNN’s new chief operating officer, the company announced Thursday. Leavy is Warner Bros. Discovery’s chief corporate affairs officer and has worked closely with Zaslav for more than 15 years. Licht took over as CNN’s CEO in April 2022.

The move appears to give Zaslav an added window into what’s going on at CNN. Licht has drawn increasing scrutiny from his own employees amid falling ratings and questionable decision-making.

Reporters and staffers openly criticized Licht’s decision to air a Donald Trump town hall with legions of screaming fans last month. Licht has since acknowledged production issues with the production while standing behind the decision to broadcast a live Trump town hall.

Placing Leavy next to Licht could be seen as a proxy for Zaslav. And, bringing in an executive who has served as a consigliere to Zaslav for more than a decade suggests there are a few boundaries or secrets between Licht and Zaslav.

Leavy’s hiring was actually Licht’s idea, not Zaslav’s, according to people familiar with the matter. Leavy had been helping Licht find a COO for CNN, acting as a sounding board for candidates. CNN initially made an offer to a female news executive, said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions were private. But Licht wanted someone to start immediately, and that executive was still under contract at her current position.

When that fell through, Leavy suggested he may be a fit for the job. Both Licht and Leavy then went to Zaslav with the idea, and he signed off, said the people. A CNN spokesperson declined to comment

Leavy will be based in Washington, D.C., near where his family lives.

Running CNN

Leavy is familiar with executives and operations across Warner Bros. Discovery and will now lead CNN’s marketing, public relations, advertising sales, facilities and other logistics.

Chris Marlin, CNN’s head of strategy and business operations, will now focus on generating alternative revenue streams for the network outside of television, the job he was initially hired to do, according to one of the people familiar with the hiring process. Such opportunities include potential partnerships or sponsorships, the person said.

Licht’s background is show producing, with stints running MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and CBS’s “Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Leavy’s hiring should allow Licht to focus more on programming and editorial strategy and less on logistics. Leavy will have no input on the editorial side of CNN.

Licht has made significant changes to CNN’s TV programming, including building a new morning show and primetime lineup. The early results have been discouraging. CNN’s audience fell 16% in May from April in terms of both total primetime viewers and among adults 25 to 54, a prized demographic for advertisers, according to Nielsen data. Average daytime viewership fell 13% overall and 17% among adults 25 to 54.

CNN fired Don Lemon in April and is moving Kaitlin Collins to its 9 p.m. primetime slot. Both anchors were part of Licht’s original morning show, which lasted less than a year.

CNN’s overall and primetime viewership trailed both Fox News and MSNBC, according to Nielsen. Fox News Channel averaged 1.09 million total daytime viewers and 1.42 million total primetime viewers in May. MSNBC averaged 736,000 daytime viewers and 1.16 million primetime watchers. CNN averaged just 416,000 in day and 494,000 in primetime.

David Zaslav
Anjali Sundaram | CNBC

In the past few weeks, Zaslav has had conversations with some CNN employees to get their sense of how things are going, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the discussions were private.

But while Zaslav and Licht aren’t thrilled with CNN’s ratings, they’re linked together charting the go-forward strategy of CNN. Leavy’s hiring only underlines that connection.

WATCH: CNBC’s full interview with Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav

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