Squeezed Lemon: Puck Hints Embattled ‘Gifted’ CNN Host Is on Thin Ice, Likely No ‘Strike Three’

February 23rd, 2023 12:56 PM

Puck’s Dylan Byers had a new dispatch Wednesday night on the drama inside Chris Licht’s CNN and his failing project, CNN This Morning, triggered by co-host Don Lemon’s squabbles with co-hosts and controversial comments. At the end of his nearly-2,300-word article, Byers dropped ominous news for the longtime CNN personality: one more screw-up like last week’s sexist smear of 2024 GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley, and you’re done.

Byers explained in the final graph that while “Licht once again came to Lemon’s aid...and offer[ed] him yet another shot...the view inside the...brain trust” of Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav “is that Lemon is responsible” for the morning show’s failures and “there may not be a strike three.”

The rest of the piece had plenty of intriguing mini-revelations, but required a level of awareness that it came off like a generous defense of Licht as a man who, while imperfect, has been beset by factors outside his control while trying to prevent a revolt among the rank-and-file.

Byers began with a retailing of the Haley fiasco, which he described as “Lemon spontaneously self-immolat[ing], and then some” “during otherwise milquetoast political segment on the inertly-rated” show.

For a brief moment, Byers zinged as if he were still at CNN working with Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy: “The Internet went aflame, of course, gathering heat from the interlocking factions of Fox News lovers, CNN haters, and media snafu drive-by spectators.”

He revealed that, by the next day, “Licht was still coming to terms with the severity of the crisis” while Lemon “didn’t seem to grasp the consequences” when he called into a morning news meeting while on vacation in Miami. In it, Byers (and others) have said, Lemon came off “sincere, scripted, and choreographed.”

Byers laid it on thick for Lemon, calling him “a naturally gifted and credentialled broadcaster” who’s “hardly a stranger to moments of eyebrow-raising journalist-becomes-the-story misadventures” and “one of the leading men in the Jeff Zucker-directed CNN-vs.-Trump mega-drama.”

Gushing he had an “unapologetically outspoken posture” that gave him his “highest ratings ever” (and adulation from Zucker), Byers pivoted to the new regime from Discovery, which saw Lemon’s shtick as “unwelcome.”

Prior to the downfall of Chris Cuomo, Byers says Zaslav made clear the Dumber and Dumber bit between Cuomo and Lemon had to go (click “expand”):

By the time of the [John] Malone interview [on CNBC], Zaz was already informally pitching his friend Licht, then the executive producer of CBS’s Late Show and a celebrated veteran of morning television, on taking the reins at CNN from Zucker, who was expected to either be elevated or exit on his own terms. Over the course of their many conversations, according to two sources familiar with the discussions, Zaz made it clear to Licht that the Cuomo-Lemon act did not fit with his vision of a less polarizing CNN. Licht shared this view, sources familiar with his thinking said, and the two men determined that they would have to overhaul prime time.

By the time Licht took over, in May 2022, Cuomo had long since self-imploded, kicking up an internal investigation that would also prompt Zucker’s ouster and clear the way for Licht’s installment as chairman and C.E.O. But Lemon was still in prime time and still in his prime. Nevertheless, Licht knew there was no way to achieve the vision for a less polarizing CNN without dislodging Lemon. One option was to allow Lemon to see out the remainder of his contract in prime time, possibly reducing him to one hour instead of two. Another option was defenestration á la Stelter—affording WBD another eight-figure write-down to help balance the books. Whatever the case, as Zaz & Co. saw it, I’m told, Lemon would not be a permanent fixture in the New CNN prime time.

With Zaslav wanting Lemon out of primetime, Byers went into defensive mode for Licht, saying he “conceived of a compromise, effectively making lemonade out of the Lemon kerfuffle: what if he made the star into the face of his new, flagship morning show?”

Byers offered more valentines for Lemon by describing him as someone who “was still a uniquely charismatic marquee star” and “multifacted,” adding “he could play the righteous provocateur and truth teller and yet he could also be the fun, easy-going and affable anchor with the charming laugh, the guy who danced and drank on New Year’s Eve, the person who once sat next to a llama on set.”

Along with stability, Byers says that, along with “a more lucrative contract,” Lemon realized that this demotion gave him “stability” and a chance to “develop his brand” as he had been “somewhat dispirited with the downward trajectory of post-Trump prime-time ratings.”

The cracks immediately showed with co-host Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins. Besides the reported berating of Collins, prima dona Don reportedly showed “unease with his new role,” including the supposed fact that “[h]e was....under the impression that his name would be included in the show’s title”.

Byers again came to Licht’s defense about CNN’s struggles, lamenting the hubbub over Lemon’s dismissal of Haley as “past her prime” was “a microcosm of CNN in the Licht era, representing the reality of what happens when an inexperienced C.E.O. tries to balance the demands of the highly pressurized corporate overlords above with anxious employees below—all while managing the complexities of a rapidly transforming industrial and economic landscape.”

He continued (click “expand”):

Licht’s first year in the job was never going to be easy, especially given the Cuomo drama, the enduring affection for Zucker, and the recent memories of CNN’s apex. But it has also been exacerbated by forces both in, and beyond, his control.

Zaz & Co. forced Licht to make a series of moves that would sap the morale of his staff: killing CNN+ in the crib, implementing layoffs he had once been told were off the table, and moving Lemon out of prime time with no obvious successor. Warner Bros. Discovery’s aggressive cost-cutting effort and restructuring significantly curtailed Licht’s ability to balance these losses with any creative wins. At the same time, Licht made his bad luck so much worse: he took a hands-off approach when CNN desperately needed a hands-on leader, he never articulated a grand vision for the business beyond fewer “breaking news” banners, and, most tragically, he failed to live up to his own reputation as a wunderkind producer, pinning his early prime time hopes on Jake Tapper and throwing Lemon, Harlow and Collins on air before they had ironed out the potentially explosive kinks.

This backdrop has inevitably hamstrung his ability to operate effectively, and renders each setback more consequential.