Mark Thompson Is an ‘Inspired Choice’ as CNN Reinvents Itself for the Digital Age

Ex-New York Times CEO and BBC director general Mark Thompson’s appointment as CNN’s new CEO offers some much-needed good news as the troubled network seeks to turn its ratings declines around and reinvent itself for the digital age.

“This seems to finally place years of C-suite dysfunction into the rearview mirror,” Rosenblatt Securities analyst Barton Crockett told TheWrap, referring to previous chief exec eras, such as Chris licht’s short and disastrous tenure, the controversial departure of news legend Jeff Zucker, and the expensive path Jason Kilar took the network.

“Thompson is as credible as you can get in this space right now,” Crockett continued, “and Warner Bros. Discovery hiring him should send a jolt of confidence to CNN’s rank and file.”

The 40-year-plus news veteran is best known for successfully transforming the New York Times into a digital operation. Under his leadership from 2012 to 2020, the newspaper’s digital business saw revenue more than double and online paid subscriptions grow tenfold with several new offerings including “The Daily” podcast, NYT Cooking and NYT Games and the acquisition of The Wirecutter.

Before that, he led the development of BBC’s iPlayer streaming service, expanded web and smartphone services from news to education to entertainment, and oversaw coverage of the biggest events of the time from the global financial crisis of 2008-09 to the 2012 Olympic Games in London as director general from 2004 to 2012.

“I think it’s a really inspired choice. He’s like the anti-Chris Licht,” one former CNN executive told TheWrap. “I think it’s a fresh start. They’ve had a very rough 18 months across the board.”

But Thompson still has many challenges ahead of him as he works to improve the network, including boosting employee morale, rebuilding trust with alienated viewers and dealing with CNN’s rapidly eroding audience on linear TV.

Thompson’s Challenges

CNN garnered 470,000 total daily viewers on average for the month of July, according to Nielsen. In the key demographic for July, CNN averaged 86,000 viewers between the ages of 25 and 54, the lowest viewership in 23 years.

“The ground is shifting, so he’s starting on a less stable firmament than he had at the New York Times, which had durable support from its core audience, and was gaining strength culturally in its niche,” Crockett said. “The big problem at CNN is that news audiences want politicized content. CNN has corporately chosen to go middle of the road. That’s no man’s land right now, and it’s not clear that Thompson can do anything to change that.”

While CNN has struggled over the last few months to recoup ratings losses, the network has seen some month-over-month viewership gains. Total day viewership improved 28% compared to July and the key 25-54 demographic was up 33% this month. CNN’s audience is also notably the youngest in cable news with an average of 67 years old, two years younger than MSNBC and three years younger than Fox News.

When it comes to turning CNN around, Thompson will need to start by mending relationships with talent and crew alike after a series of layoffs and programming changes over the last several months.

Thompson will be “good at managing all kinds of big personalities,” one person who worked with Thompson at the Times said. “He’s avuncular… he makes time for people. He’ll help guide people, listen to new ideas. He’ll know how to manage egos.”

Next, he’ll be tasked with supporting and carrying out Warner Bros. Discovery CEO’s David Zaslav’s vision by ushering in a new era with CNN Max, a 24/7 service that will launch in beta form in the U.S. on Sept. 27.

“He’s got this nice manner about him where he can inspire you but is not telling you what to do,” the individual who worked with him at the Times added.

The offering, which will be available directly through the Max streaming service, is expected to provide a mix of original programming built specifically for the platform and live programming from CNN US and CNN International.

“This will make Max more valuable and pay TV less. WBD makes most of its money from pay TV, so this is a difficult trade, but one WBD has to make to stay in front of obvious trends,” Crockett said. “If WBD has success, others will follow suit, and news will be less of a reason to subscribe to pay TV.”

“I think the challenge in this is where’s the benefit for CNN?” he added. “I think there’s benefit for Warner Bros. Discovery, but the incremental ad dollars is not…going to be enough to build a future for CNN.”

Third, he may have to engage in more cost-cutting under Zaslav’s directive as WBD seeks to reduce its heavy debt load and fulfill its promise to Wall Street that its streaming business in the U.S. will be profitable by the end of 2023 – something he’s done before.

“I’m sure he’ll have to do cost-cutting, but he did that at the Times, and you didn’t see a revolt,” Thompson’s former Times colleague also said.

“Peak disruption”

In his first memo to staff on Wednesday, Thompson acknowledged that TV journalism is approaching “peak disruption” and voiced confidence in getting the news network through it.

“I’ve spent most of the past 20 years figuring out with colleagues at some of the world’s other great news operations not just how to survive the revolution, but to thrive in it and gain new audiences and revenue streams. I aim to do the same at CNN,” he continued. “It won’t be my plan that wins the day but our plan, the plan we devise and implement together. Which is why, particularly in the early weeks, you’ll find me doing a lot more listening and learning than holding forth.”

But Crockett pointed out CNN is not the New York Times, and warned the success Thompson had launching “speciality enthusiast subscription add-ons for an affluent customer base” will be difficult to replicate.

“CNN has no meaningful subscriber business on its own, and instead works through Max, which Thompson doesn’t control,” he said. “So there’s limits and constraints here he didn’t have at the New York Times.”

The former CNN exec emphasized that leadership needs to “choose a path and commit to it.”

Sharon Waxman and Natalie Korach contributed to this report.

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