From Tom Jones | Poynter <[email protected]>
Subject Is CNN is ready for a full dive into comedy?
Date January 31, 2023 12:30 PM
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CEO Chris Licht seeks ‘fresh and unique perspectives’ but does not want to ‘hurt the brand and reputation that we’re working so hard to restore.’ Email not displaying correctly?
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** Does airing Bill Maher weekly mean CNN is ready for a full dive into comedy?
Bill Maher, shown here in a photo from last March. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Ever since Chris Licht took over as the big boss at CNN last April, one of the big questions he faced was: What to do about prime time?

He had an opening at the coveted 9 p.m. Eastern slot because Chris Cuomo had been let go a few months earlier. Then another piece of prime-time real estate — the 10 p.m. Eastern hour — opened up late last year when host Don Lemon was shifted to a revamped morning show.

Both prime-time slots remain without permanent hosts.

For the past couple of months, there have been rumors that Licht — the former showrunner of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” — was thinking about filling one of those prime-time spots with a comedian. You know, someone who could combine news and humor the way Jon Stewart or Trevor Noah used to on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” or how John Oliver does on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” In fact, those names, and others, have been floated as possible CNN hosts.

Semafor’s Max Tani recently wrote ([link removed]) about CNN’s consideration of a comedian in prime time, writing, “The discussions are aimed at turning away from the competition with MSNBC for liberal news junkies, and toward pulling viewers from HGTV, ESPN, and Netflix. Licht has also attempted to pitch CNN as a potential gateway to other brands within Warner Discovery, reminding talent that the company is attached to HBO and Warner Brothers, where there could be further opportunities for projects.”

Well, now it seems as if CNN is going to dip its toes into the comedy world. On Monday, the network announced that the online, post-show segment of Bill Maher’s HBO show will now air Friday nights at 11:30 on CNN. “Overtime” is the post-show segment of “Real Time with Bill Maher” and is a continuation of the panel discussion and viewer questions and answers following each week’s episode of “Real Time.”

“Overtime” will air weekly on CNN starting this Friday.

“Real Time” is in its 21st season, and is more comedy than straight news with monologue bits and panel discussions. It’s just that current events and politics are the topics of the monologues and discussions. Maher, who has done stand-up comedy heavy on political satire, considers himself a liberal, but often crosses political lines in his criticisms. He often makes enemies of both Democrats and Republicans. So who knows how it will play to CNN audiences?

His HBO show runs multiple times during the week, so viewership numbers can fluctuate, but the Friday night debut usually is a tad under a million viewers. The weekly numbers are, obviously, more than that. Will the HBO audience follow Maher to CNN? And will Maher attract new viewers at CNN? And could this lead to more appearances by Maher on CNN?

Is he a cutting-edge satirist, as some maintain? Or has he turned into a grumpy old man, an opinion to which others subscribe?

All remains to be seen.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Alex Weprin smartly points out ([link removed]) , “And while ‘Overtime’ is more of a comedy show than a news show, it won’t really find itself in any meaningful competition with the other late night programs (including CNN CEO Chris Licht’s last TV home as executive producer of CBS’ Late Show). With Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel almost always running reruns on Friday nights, there might be an opening for something original at 11:30 p.m.”

Is it a trial run to see how comedy might fit into CNN’s prime-time programming? Well, not so fast.

In an interview with The Los Angeles Times’ Stephen Battaglio ([link removed]) , Licht said, “No. I worked on a comedy show. And it took over 200 people to produce an actual comedy show. So no, I would not be so foolish as to, in one fell swoop, hurt the brand of comedy and news by trying to do a comedy show on CNN.”

Licht told Battaglio, “I’m casting a wide net to help broaden the appeal of our prime time. But at the same time, I can’t offend our core audience of news junkies. I would never do anything that would hurt the brand and reputation that we’re working so hard to restore.”

Might that include comedians in prime time? Licht said, “We are in conversations with culturally relevant individuals from the worlds of entertainment, sports and comedy who can bring fresh and unique perspectives to the news.”

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** More from Licht …

Be sure to check out Battaglio’s good and wide-ranging Q&A with Licht. Here’s another interesting nugget from the interview. Licht said, “I think we have to restore trust. It’s that simple. You can talk to a lot of different people as to why that has eroded, but as opposed to looking back I will say one of our missions is to restore our reputation as the most trusted name in news. We certainly have research that shows that (trust) has eroded.”

Ever since Licht took over, there has been scrutiny that the network is becoming more centrist after previously being perceived as liberal. Licht has repeatedly pushed back against that narrative, telling the Financial Times ([link removed]) last November, “One of the biggest misconceptions about my vision is that I want to be vanilla, that I want to be centrist. That is (bull). You have to be compelling. You have to have edge. In many cases you take a side. Sometimes you just point out uncomfortable questions. But either way you don’t see it through a lens of left or right.”

In the interview with Battaglio, Licht said, “There is nothing wrong with opinion or perspective, especially in prime time, but it has to be authentic. We are completely uninterested in partisan hackery and ideological talking points.”

** Seeing eye-to-eye?
Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The New York Times’ Robert Draper has a new piece about the Florida Republican Congressman in “Matt Gaetz, Political Arsonist, Has New Powers. What Will He Do With Them?” ([link removed])

Gaetz already has a higher profile than most of his colleagues, but he made even more of a name for himself by leading the hard-right faction of the Republican party to stop Kevin McCarthy from becoming speaker of the House. Eventually, after 15 ballots, McCarthy won the speakership (and a portrait on the wall in the Capitol) after major concessions to the hard-liners of the party.

Draper wrote, “In the three weeks since Mr. McCarthy ultimately agreed to the price of the portrait, Mr. Gaetz’s role in the melodrama has only entrenched his stature as an attention-craving political arsonist adored by the Trump wing of the G.O.P. — but also, House Republican leaders begrudgingly say, as a lawmaker with new powers.”

It’s a solid look at where Gaetz’s political career stands at the moment, and it includes this curious passage about Fox News:

“Will he continue in his role as an insatiable limelight seeker, one who boasted to colleagues that he began each day instructing aides to call Fox News bookers to determine what message du jour he should be trumpeting? Will he assert himself more on substance and push harder on his far-right agenda? Or is his only goal blowing things up?”

Does Gaetz actually check in daily with Fox News or does he just “boast” to colleagues that he does? With Gaetz, it’s hard to say. It seems as if bookers and producers at Fox News have enough on their plates without carving out time each day to go over the topics with someone like him.

** More Memphis coverage

Here is more important journalism regarding the beating death of Tyre Nichols by members of the Memphis police:
* The Associated Press’ Adrian Sainz with “6th Memphis officer relieved of duty in Nichols arrest.” ([link removed])
* The Los Angeles Times’ Jaweed Kaleem with “What Tyre Nichols’ death at the hands of Black officers says about race in policing.” ([link removed])
* On a media-related topic, The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr with “News organizations grapple with showing horrific Nichols, Pelosi videos.” ([link removed])

** Media tidbits
MSNBC’s Yasmin Vossoughian on the air on Monday. (Courtesy: MSNBC)
* MSNBC’s Yasmin Vossoughian is back on the air after being hospitalized for a month when a cold turned into pericarditis and myocarditis. She detailed her ordeal in this segment ([link removed]) on Monday.
* In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, former Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. with “Newsrooms that move beyond ‘objectivity’ can build trust.” ([link removed])
* Former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, who now sits on the Fox Corporation board of directors, is scheduled to be deposed by Dominion Voting Systems today in its $1.6 billion lawsuit against Fox News. Dominion claims Fox News defamed the company with false allegations regarding its machines in the 2020 presidential election. Fox News has repeatedly said it merely covered the remarks made by former President Donald Trump and his representatives.
* In The Los Angeles Times, David L. Ulin has a bone to pick in “‘Estimated reading times’ on articles are antithetical to real reading.” ([link removed])
* The New York Times’ Ken Bensinger and Maggie Haberman with “Trump’s Evolution in Social-Media Exile: More QAnon, More Extremes.” ([link removed])

** Hot type
* The Atlantic writes, “Our constant need for entertainment has blurred the line between fiction and reality — on television, in American politics, and in our everyday lives.” So, for this month’s Atlantic cover story, it’s Megan Garber with “We’ve lost the plot.” ([link removed])
* CNN’s Brian Lowry with “‘The Last of Us’ just made an early claim to one of the best TV episodes of 2023.” ([link removed]) (Warning: this story contains plot spoilers for episode three of the HBO show.)
* The New York Times’ Mike Baker with “A Small Boat, a Vast Sea and a Desperate Escape From Russia.” ([link removed])

** More resources for journalists
* Subscribe ([link removed]) to Poynter’s Friday newsletter, Open Tabs ([link removed]) with Poynter managing editor Ren LaForme, and get behind-the-scenes stories only available to subscribers.
* How to Cover Gun Violence and the Gun Debate in America ([link removed]) (Seminar) — Start anytime ([link removed]) .
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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at [email protected] (mailto:[email protected]) .
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