(Bloomberg) -- For the second time in a little over two years, Warner Bros. Discovery Inc. is looking for a new leader to restore calm at CNN after the ouster of an embattled CEO.
But CNN’s woes reach far beyond the tumult left behind by Chris Licht, who stepped down on Wednesday.
Whoever gets the job next will inherit a network getting dragged down by the rapid decline of cable TV. CNN’s subscribers have fallen from 85 million in 2020 to 70 million this year, while advertising revenue dropped 33% to $563 million during that time, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.
CNN’s prime-time audience in the key 25-to-54 age group is down 26% this season from a year ago, averaging 131,000 viewers, according to Nielsen. Ratings have also declined at Fox, the No. 1 news channel, and MSNBC. In April, MSNBC topped CNN among those viewers in total day for the first time since November 2019.
Licht wanted to make CNN less opinionated and alarmist, telling anchors to remain objective and producers to use the “Breaking News” banner less often. He also made changes to CNN’s morning and prime-time shows. But given the long-running decline of cable TV subscribers, boosting ratings at CNN seems like a near-impossible task.
Licht’s successor will face other challenges, like rebuilding trust with staff and deciding how to cover Donald Trump’s presidential run.
Licht’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker, benefited from leading CNN during the Trump administration, when the president became a reliable magnet for cable TV audiences. But Licht’s successor may not get the same boost as the 2024 presidential race heats up. Last month, CNN’s town hall with Trump drew 3.3 million viewers. In 2020, a Trump town hall on the NBC broadcast network drew 10.9 million viewers.
Meanwhile, TV news has struggled to find its footing in the streaming era. Last year, Licht shut down the CNN+ streaming service, which was meant to be the network’s destination for TV cord-cutters, just a few weeks after its launch.
Warner Bros. Discovery is staking its future on Max, its rebranded streaming service. For now, CNN’s live programming doesn’t appear on Max. Providing it there would likely violate contracts with cable-TV operators, whose shrinking subscriber base has made the job of running CNN increasingly difficult.
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