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Friday, September 29, 2023

Don Lemon's firing cements CNN morning show as a misfire from boss Chris Licht, analysts say

There has been collateral damage in the stunning self-destruction of Don Lemon, and that’s the standing of CNN boss Chris Licht.

Licht, who is approaching one year as CNN’s CEO, has a lot riding on “CNN This Morning,” his first creation since his takeover of the network. Scrapping the poorly rated “New Day” from the Jeff Zucker era, Licht was hoping to find success in A.M. programming like he did as the founding executive producer of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and revitalizing “CBS This Morning.” 

Now the biggest name on the show is gone. Lemon was fired on Monday, shortly after he completed his final broadcast. He lasted less than six months in his new morning show role.

“Lemon’s ouster is the strongest indication of how, despite the tough talk about changing CNN for the better after the sordid reign of Jeff Zucker, Chris Licht’s tenure at CNN has been an abject failure,” conservative NewsBusters managing editor Curtis Houck told Fox News Digital. 


When Warner Bros. Discovery honcho David Zaslav tapped Licht to lead CNN, it was under the mission to move the network away from its liberal partisanship, which surged under Zucker during the Trump era. 

Amid the challenge of rebranding CNN, Licht seemed keen on first rebranding Lemon, who had become one of the network’s most vocal anti-Republican voices in primetime. Rather than canning the 17-year CNN veteran after ousting polarizing figures like Brian Stelter and Jeffrey Toobin, Licht pulled him from his two-hour solo nightly gig for his morning show experiment, teaming him with co-anchors Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins.

CNN boss Chris Licht

CNN CEO Chris Licht’s morning show experiment with Don Lemon lasted less than six months. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Warner Bros. Discovery)

“Lemon never should have been chosen for this job. He was already the lowest-rated host in primetime, so why would anybody expect for him to be a success in the morning?” Fox News contributor Joe Concha asked. “Plus, his ego would never allow for him to work well with other hosts. He has been solo in primetime for many years and anyone could see that the transition in sharing a desk with two other women wasn’t going to go well from a mile away, and it obviously did not.”

Concha insisted Lemon’s firing is a “tremendous blow” to Licht and “puts into question [his] talent judgment.”


But according to former CNN producer and Fourth Watch media critic Steve Krakauer, Lemon’s firing was inevitable “the moment Chris Licht took over.”

“If he could have harnessed the old Don Lemon – the Lemon that existed for years at CNN before Trump took office – perhaps that could have worked. But the reality is that Don Lemon is gone for good, and perhaps that will work to his benefit in whatever he does next, in some job that allows him to embrace his outright liberal opinion positioning,” Krakauer told Fox News Digital. 

“This is another glaring example of the fact that CNN cannot simply reshuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic and expect the ship to recover from the iceberg hit,” the “Uncovered” author continued. “New talent needs to be the way out of the hole the new management is trying to dig themselves out of.”

Don Lemon insists CNN didn’t demote him

Don Lemon was fired from CNN after a series of controversies and blunders that plagued the network.  (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for THR)

DePauw University professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall similarly referred to CNN as a “leaking ship” and that throwing Lemon overboard “makes sense for CNN from a ratings standpoint” as well as Licht’s effort to reinvent the network. He told Fox News Digital that Licht had no choice but to show Lemon the door after his recent controversies, from his remarks about Nikki Haley being past her “prime” to a Variety story alleging past misogynistic behavior in the workplace.

“Lemon was at the point of making more news than announcing it,” McCall said. “The bad publicity from the recent Variety story just added to the accumulation of Lemon’s troubles. Clearly, Lemon was a drag on the morning show ratings, and frankly, the CNN brass should have seen that coming… It is hard to imagine what made CNN programmers think a morning news show was the place to rehab Lemon’s declining public image.” 


Howard Breuer, branding expert and CEO of Newsroom PR, said it was “too easy” for Lemon to “throw a gutter ball” based on the position he was in.

“Either you are not provocative enough to get the ratings and keep your seat or you have a bad day and push the limits in ways some people don’t like and then the cancel culture comes knocking,” Breuer told Fox News Digital. 

Kaitlan Collins, Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow on red carpet

Don Lemon kept making tabloids for his off-camera feuds with his “CNN This Morning” co-hosts Kaitlan Collins and Poppy Harlow.  (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for CNN)

There was immediately a war of words between Lemon and CNN following his ouster.

“I was informed this morning by my agent that I have been terminated by CNN. I am stunned,” Lemon wrote on Twitter. “After 17 years at CNN I would have thought that someone in management would have had the decency to tell me directly. At no time was I ever given any indication that I would not be able to continue to do the work I have loved at the network. It is clear that there are some larger issues at play.”

CNN, which had characterized the firing as a parting of ways in a statement that followed Lemon’s tweet, pushed back, saying, “Don Lemon’s statement about this morning’s events is inaccurate. He was offered an opportunity to meet with management but instead released a statement on Twitter.”

“If that’s the case, one could wonder whether Lemon saw an opportunity to brand himself the latest victim of cancel culture and land another gig far from CNN, as opposed to lingering in a delicate situation where his detractors had him on the ropes,” Breuer added. 


While Lemon will no longer be a nightmare for CNN’s PR department, Licht still has plenty of headaches, beginning with turning around cratered viewership and filling the network’s primetime schedule. Nearly 17 months after Chris Cuomo was fired by previous management, CNN does not have a permanent 9 p.m. host.

There has been a revolving door of fill-in hosts for the 9 p.m. ET vacancy from Jim Acosta to Jake Tapper, while Licht tapped Alisyn Camerota and Laura Coates to lead programming at 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET respectively in recent months. 

The only constant throughout the chaos has been the low-rated “Anderson Cooper 360” in the 8 p.m. ET time slot.

Recent developments show weeknight programming remains in flux. Coates is reportedly being pulled from the 11 p.m. ET slot due to lack of staff budgeting, leaving Camerota to do double duty from 10 p.m through midnight. CNN’s Sunday program “Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace?” is being moved to Friday nights at 10 p.m. CNN also announced last weekend that CBS News’ Gayle King and NBA legend Charles Barkley will be teaming up for a weekly primetime show titled “King Charles,” set to air on Wednesday nights this fall.

Charles Barkley and Gayle King

CNN announced that former NBA all-star Charles Barkley and CBS News anchor Gayle King will be co-hosting a weekly primetime show as the network struggles to revitalize its programming.  (Getty Images)

The King-Barkley pairing, though, addresses only one hour of content on one weeknight instead of all five. It marks Licht’s boldest programming move to date but in a memo to staff, he stopped short of declaring it a permanent solution for CNN by saying the show will air “beginning this fall and running into 2024.”

One CNN insider said the network greatly needs more diversity in its primetime lineup, particularly with Coates not getting a show. 

“We need diversity in prime,” they said. “And Gayle and Charles for one day a week for this limited run few months starting in the fall? Nope. That is [baloney] if anyone tries to ‘count’ that.”


In February, the network shifted its pitch to Variety, which ran the headline “CNN Bets News, Not Big Names, Will Capture Crowds at 9 PM.” The premise was that the news would be the real star in primetime through town halls, high-profile interviews and other specials rather than a single TV personality to be the face of the time slot. But so far they have failed to juice CNN’s ratings. 

In March, CNN averaged only 539,000 total viewers in primetime compared to Fox News’ 2.1 million average and MSNBC’s 1.2 million. CNN finished the first quarter of 2023 with its smallest audience during primetime among the advertiser-coveted 25-54 demo since at least 1991. 

All data courtesy of Nielsen Media Research. 

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