December 8, 2023

Media Decoder: MSNBC’s Chris Licht to Join CBS News

11:52 a.m. | Updated | Chris Licht, the behind-the-scenes member of the “Morning Joe” band, is leaving MSNBC and becoming the vice president of programming at CBS News.

Mr. Licht’s hiring was announced by CBS News on Thursday morning. At CBS, he will try to inject new energy into the network’s long-troubled morning show, “The Early Show,” and develop other programs and projects. Though the morning show will be his “first focus,” Mr. Licht said in an interview, “I will be doing whatever I can to help.”

Mr. Licht is part of a reboot by CBS News — the third-place network news division — at a time when Katie Couric is leaving and Scott Pelley, a “60 Minutes” correspondent, is replacing her on the “CBS Evening News.” Along with a new anchor, the news division has a new chairman, a new president, new bosses on several of its programs, and a plan to pump up its hard news credentials.

A departure from MSNBC by Mr. Licht has been the subject of much speculation in the television news business for several weeks. He was a creator and is the executive producer of “Morning Joe,” the free-wheeling talk show that is envied by competitors for its A-list bookings and for the chemistry between Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and the regulars that join them on their set at Rockefeller Center.

On “Morning Joe,” Mr. Licht often pops up on camera in the control room to read viewer e-mails and joke with Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski. Inseparable is an apt word to describe the trio.

Departing MSNBC, Mr. Licht said, was “unequivocally the hardest decision I’ve ever made.” But he has harbored an interest for years in having a broader executive role at a network, and NBC, the leading network news division, did not need the help the way CBS does.

“That’s whats exciting about this job,” he said. “It’s not ‘Hey, come protect the status quo.’ It’s ‘Hey, come here and let’s try new things.’ And you have the freedom to do that.”

David Rhodes, the president of CBS News, said in an interview that Mr. Licht would start at CBS on June 6.

“Whats interesting about what Chris has accomplished in recent years is that it’s different,” Mr. Rhodes said, referring to “Morning Joe.” “There’s been too much energy spent in all of TV basically trying to mimic the 1995 ‘Today’ show. I think we can do something different. I think people want something different.”

Does that mean Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski will someday join Mr. Licht at CBS? As soon as Mr. Licht started having job interviews, people started asking the question — even in the middle of the interviews. “Every place I interviewed, there was a desire expressed — ‘Boy, we would sure love to have Joe and Mika,’ ” Mr. Licht said. Two weeks ago the Web site Mediaite said that CBS was trying to recruit the hosts along with Mr. Licht.

“It wasn’t fun, but it didn’t surprise me that those rumors started, because people generally know how tight we are,” Mr. Licht said.

Mr. Rhodes stated flatly: “Chris is being hired for Chris.”

Asked whether he would want to hire Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski, Mr. Rhodes said, “Look, Joe and Mika are under contract at NBC. From what I understand, it’s a contract that has a while left to run. Joe and Mika are great talent, and if they were available, we would obviously be interested in talking to them. And that goes for a number of people. But from what I understand right now they remain under contract.”

The end date of the contracts is unknown. Mr. Scarborough and Ms. Brzezinski recently started working with the Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel, of William Morris Endeavor, according to two people with knowledge of the relationship. Asked to confirm the relationship last week, Mr. Emanuel wrote in an e-mail message, “No commitment,” and declined to elaborate.

Mr. Licht said of the possibility of the pair joining CBS, “Look, when their contracts are up, if that’s the right move for them, that would be fantastic.” He continued, “This was not, ‘Hey, go to CBS so we can come too.’”

Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, said Thursday that Alex Korson would replace Mr. Licht as the executive producer of “Morning Joe.” He also named Ann Edelberg the senior supervising producer. “Alex and Ann have been driving forces for the show’s success and I’m confident that they will continue to make ‘Morning Joe’ the most talked about morning news program,” Mr. Griffin wrote in an internal memorandum.

Mr. Griffin added, “I also want to take this opportunity to thank Chris Licht for his leadership. Chris has had an impressive career at MSNBC – as the executive producer of both ‘Scarborough Country’ and ‘Morning Joe.’ I wish him good luck with his new role at CBS.”

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