NEW YORK (AP) — A former chief executive of the BBC and The New York Times who says he sees opportunity in times of disruption was chosen Wednesday to lead CNN, which has burned through two leaders and bled viewers over the past two years.
Mark Thompson was appointed as CNN’s new chair and CEO by the network’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery. Thompson will replace Chris Licht, who was fired in June, and a four-person team that had been running CNN in the interim, when he takes over Oct. 9.
Thompson, who left the Times in 2020 after eight years as that company’s president and CEO, is credited with helping the newspaper transition to a digital-first organization more dependent on paid subscribers than the collapsing advertising market that has doomed many newspapers.
The native of England, who was knighted by the British government this year, was director-general of the BBC from 2004 to 2012.
“I’ve long admired Mark’s transformative leadership and his ability to inspire organizations to raise their own ambitions and sense of what’s possible, and achieve it,” David Zaslav, chief of Warner Bros. Discovery, said in a note to CNN staff.
Thompson, in his own note, said that television journalism is approaching peak disruption. CNN and other networks have suffered from people cutting off cable subscriptions, and the company has so far fumbled its attempt to establish a streaming service.
“We face pressure from every direction — structural, political, cultural, you name it,” Thompson said. “Like many other media organizations, CNN has recently felt some of the uncertainty and heartache that comes with all of that. There’s no magic wand I or anyone else can wield to make this disruption go away. But what I can say is that where others see threat, I see opportunity.”
CNN will be going from someone with little leadership experience — Licht was a producer who ran shows like “Morning Joe” and the CBS “Late Show” before taking over CNN — to a person with top executive roles at two of the world’s largest and most respected news organizations.
At the Times, he concentrated on the business side, not journalism. CNN will give him a broader role, similar to what he achieved at the BBC, where he steadily rose through the ranks to the top spot.
He helped steady the BBC in his early years as leader after it had been rocked by scandal over its reporting on Britain’s intelligence about Iraq’s weapons programs in the run-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Thompson later faced criticism over the broadcaster’s handling of child abuse allegations against the longtime BBC children’s TV presenter Jimmy Savile, who was exposed after his death in 2011 as a pedophile who molested children for decades. An investigation into Savile by the BBC’s “Newsnight” program due to run soon after his death was shelved at the last minute; Thompson denied involvement in that decision.
In a 2021 interview with Exec Publications, Thompson said there was a lot of skepticism within the Times that digital subscriptions could be built up significantly, given a public aversion to pay walls. But he said he hired teams of engineers and data scientists to improve the experience of reading the newspaper on different devices.
The Times, which also benefited from a boost in news interest during the Trump administration, had 10 times as many paid subscribers when he left than when he started.
Thompson had a far worse experience implementing a digital media plan for the BBC. He was called before a parliamentary committee to testify after a government audit found that a plan to combine digital production and archiving wasted millions of dollars due to confusion and poor planning.
At CNN, he faces a dynamic nearly as old as the network itself. Viewership interest in its news coverage has peaks and valleys. CNN has fallen well behind Fox News and MSNBC in popularity, with opinionated talk connecting more with viewers in a politically polarized time. Licht had encouraged CNN to find a middle ground and flex its newsgathering muscles.
He was doomed at the end by a damning Atlantic magazine profile that showed his failure to connect with employees, many loyal to his predecessor, Jeff Zucker. Zucker was pushed out in February 2022 after failing to disclose to his bosses a romantic relationship with a fellow network executive.
Besides ratings, CNN’s finances have suffered. The network earned $892 million in profit in 2022, down from $1.08 billion in 2020, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Shortly after Licht was named to his new job, CNN’s new corporate masters pulled the plug on a well-publicized streaming service after only weeks in operation. Just this month, it announced that CNN news would be part of its Max streaming service.
CNN also fired two popular prime-time hosts over the past two years, Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon, the latter after an ill-fated move to a new morning show.
Licht never settled on a new prime-time lineup in his tenure. The four-person interim leadership team — Amy Entelis, David Leavy, Virginia Moseley and Eric Sherling — recently set a new lineup that includes Kaitlan Collins, Abby Phillip and Laura Coates in weeknight roles, with veteran Christiane Amanpour and Chris Wallace getting new weekend gigs.
Zaslav said that the four interim leaders would remain at CNN, reporting to Thompson. The incoming chief executive’s selection was first reported Tuesday night by Puck.
In his note Wednesday, Thompson sought to buoy staff members by praising the network’s coverage of the brief rebellion against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“That day confirmed an old truth to me: when it matters most, CNN is the best place to find out what’s happening,” he wrote. “You always rise to the occasion.”
AP correspondent Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that CNN earned $892 million in profit in 2022, not $892.