CNN putting comic in primetime could be ‘cringe-worthy,’ but network has nothing to lose: Experts, insiders


CNN could bring on a comedian to fill the gaping holes in its primetime lineup as some believe the struggling network has nothing to lose, but others think the move would be a “cringe-inducing” disaster. 

CNN has been without a 9 p.m. host since Chris Cuomo was fired by previous management in 2021, and a series of temporary replacements have largely failed to resonate with viewers as CNN finished 2022 with dreadful viewership. Chris Licht, who produced “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” before taking the role of CNN CEO last year, is reportedly now considering a “news entertainment” personality.  

Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Trevor Noah and Arsenio Hall are among the comedians who have been considered by CNN executives, according to a report this week from Semafor. However, Mediaite has since reported that Hall is not an option for primetime and Maher was mentioned because of interest in his HBO segments airing on CNN, not for the 9 p.m. slot. 

Nonetheless, Licht is open to finding a comedian to take over Cuomo’s old slot if he can find the right candidate. Don Lemon, CNN’s longtime mainstay at 10 p.m., is also now out of primetime, having been tapped for the new AM show “CNN This Morning” late last year.

Chris Licht oversaw “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” before taking the role of CNN CEO.
(Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Warner Bros. Discovery)

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A CNN insider told Fox News Digital they thought it might be a risk worth taking, although they added figures like Maher or fellow HBO host John Oliver were used to a one-day-a-week format, not the rigors of a five-night-a-week schedule. It was just last year that MSNBC star anchor Rachel Maddow got so burned out from her primetime program that she scaled back to just Monday nights.

“These guys go one show a week now and they love their lives. Not sure if they can do what they do five days,” they said. “Maybe they could do four. So, if it were me running the network I’d go for it.”

“The thing is those ideas both cross news and entertainment,” the insider continued. “Going more straight entertainment — probably same high cost and higher risk. But they haven’t taken any risks yet, so maybe just take a swing. What is to lose at this point?”

They added that morale “remains grim” at the network as CNN was forced to make layoffs last month, capping off a difficult first year on the job for Licht.

“It’s micro and macro… the layoffs in our business and now way more broadly are accelerating. There is no easy other choice for people right now, it’s grim out there,” they said. 

Bill Maher and Jon Stewart.

Bill Maher and Jon Stewart.
(Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images Randy Holmes/ABC via Getty Images)

A longtime TV news executive disagrees and told Fox News Digital that “turning CNN’s top primetime hour into a comedy show will be a disaster” for the already floundering network. 

“First, it’s guaranteed to be cringe-inducing and unfunny,” they said. “Second, how ridiculous will it look when they have to break away from a comedy show for breaking news?”

It’s unclear if CNN would keep a news anchor on hand during these hours in the event that breaking news occurred while a comedian was steering the ship. Licht has previously emphasized his desire to focus CNN on straight news. 

Fox News Channel, which airs the comedy program “Gutfeld!” outside the primetime window at 11 p.m. ET, has offered special coverage when breaking news events occur during the time slot. 

“Gutfeld!” has been a huge success and outdraws liberal late-night network mainstays on a regular basis. In August, Gutfeld’s show achieved the lofty benchmark of most-watched late-night show for an entire month. 

It was the first month since January 2017 that Stephen Colbert’s program didn’t finish as the No. 1 late-night program between broadcast and cable. Perhaps seeing his old buddy fall to Gutfeld was the impetus for Licht’s reported desire to fill Cuomo’s shoes with a comedian.

Jake Tapper anchored the last four weeks of the 2022 election season at Cuomo’s hour and then moved back to his daytime show “The Lead.” He told Fox News Digital he had no interest in having the permanent primetime slot due to his family life, and he criticized media reports that it was a “tryout” of sorts, calling them blatantly false.

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CNN has been without a permanent 9 p.m. host since Chris Cuomo was fired in 2021.

CNN has been without a permanent 9 p.m. host since Chris Cuomo was fired in 2021.
(CNN)

Right-leaning political satirist Tim Young joked that CNN already “hired a comedian” this month when it gave ex-GOP congressman Adam Kinzinger a gig before taking a serious tone. 

“It literally is a joke that CNN is so desperate for ratings that they would turn to one of a few leftist comedians — who have already basically failed on television — to try to turn things around,” Young told Fox News Digital. 

Indeed, it’s been a rough time for liberal comedians on TV, as many have been canceled or plagued by ratings issues. 

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TBS, which is CNN’s sister network under the Warner Bros. Discovery umbrella, canceled left-wing, late-night show “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” in July, with the network calling it a business-based decision. Noah announced in September he would walk away from Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” this year amid poor viewership.

Young doesn’t think bringing comedy to CNN’s primetime lineup will help the network regain respectability in the ratings department. 

“Every other late-night host, aside from Gutfeld, is a far-left leaning propagandist at this point, so I’m not sure what share of the viewership adding more of the same is going to pull for this failing network,” Young said. 

“I find it interesting that CNN, who took every single one of Trump’s jokes literally and was outraged by it, suddenly wants to pretend it has a sense of humor,” Young continued. “Last I checked, CNN told everyone that they were going to be non-partisan, so why are they only looking at people who push the Biden administration’s talking points to expand their network?” 

Outkick media writer Bobby Burack said CNN had been stuck in “no man’s land” since former President Trump left office and pulling off a buzzy hire for its primetime slot would give viewers a reason to tune back in. But he cautioned some of the names in the initial report looked like non-starters.

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He added Stewart, under contract with Apple anyway, had become “shallow and repetitive,” and that Noah, who walked away from “The Daily Show” last year, potentially made the most sense for CNN’s brand. 

Burack believes that Licht looking outside CNN’s roster suggests he’s not satisfied with his existing talent pool.

“I believe [Licht] has been disappointed with the options CNN has,” Burack said. “Star power and individual drawing power is more important than ever, and CNN just doesn’t have that person. When Licht came here, I think he was more confident than he should have been that he would find someone.”

While morale remains low after the cost-cutting bloodbath, it’s fair to wonder how rank-and-file staffers would react Warner Bros. Discovery cutting an enormous check to a high-profile comic to fill Cuomo’s primetime shoes. 

Representatives for the four comedians mentioned by Semafor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Outkick and Fox News share common ownership. 

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