The afternoon email hit some inside CNN like a ton of bricks. The cable news channel, now under Warner Bros. Discovery (its second owner in just a few years) was going to face budget cuts and layoffs. “There is widespread concern over the global economic outlook, and we must factor that risk into our long-term planning,” CNN CEO Chris Licht wrote in a late-October memo.
At a network town hall on Nov. 15, Licht confirmed to moderator Alisyn Camerota that layoffs will hit the division in December. Those cuts are part of an industrywide pivot, as media giants prepare for a difficult winter, seeking to reduce costs however they can. And news divisions will not be spared.
At Disney, CEO Bob Chapek sent a memo to division leaders Nov. 11 outlining a hiring freeze, canceling all travel not deemed “essential” and a new “cost structure task force” that will pursue “organizational enhancements.”
“We do anticipate some staff reductions as part of this review,” Chapek warned, adding that some decisions would be “tough and uncomfortable.”
Disney-owned ABC News, led by Kim Godwin, is not exempt from those orders, as she told staff in a Nov. 14 edit meeting.
“Just a few months ago, Disney’s now ex-CEO [Bob] Iger stated ‘linear TV and satellite is marching toward a great precipice and it will be pushed off.’ With Disney management’s FY 2023 guidance, it appears that that cliff may be closer than any of us thought,” MoffettNathanson’s Michael Nathanson wrote Nov. 9, underscoring the challenges facing the company.
While it is not yet clear how widespread layoffs and staff reductions will be across the TV news landscape, the belt-tightening is in full effect. And with the 2022 midterm elections effectively over (Georgia’s Senate runoff and a handful of close races notwithstanding), the opportunity is presenting itself to trim back on spending — at least until the 2024 presidential election kicks into high gear at some point next year. And that anxiety is already being felt in newsrooms and studios across the country.
“I can tell you from experience that times of anticipated budget cuts and layoffs are extremely tense in newsrooms as employees worry about losing their livelihoods,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of the broadcast journalism department at the University of Maryland, and a former investigative correspondent at CNN and ABC News. “Internal politics can get quite cutthroat as staffers jockey to win the favor of new bosses or even push managers to fire others — especially rivals — instead. People don’t do their best work in such cauldrons of insecurity.”
At one major TV news outlet, staffers have been instructed to be “thoughtful and budget-conscious” with regard to their travel and spending. An increased use of remote interviews via video services like Zoom is being suggested as well, instead of sending a crew. Of course, correspondents and producers will not stop traveling altogether, as the news will continue to be told. Travel is, for many in news divisions, an essential part of the job. That being said, multiple sources at two different networks tell The Hollywood Reporter that it is not unusual for requests to cut back on discretionary spending to happen toward the end of the calendar year, when budgets for the following year begin to fall into place.
And while thus far Disney and CNN parent WBD are the only media companies to openly discuss layoffs, there are signs that others will follow.
At CBS News parent Paramount, executives are signaling that they are pursuing a similar strategy. “I do think that there’s a potential for a restructuring charge in Q4,” Paramount CFO Naveen Chopra said on the company’s Q3 earnings call Nov. 2, adding that the expected cost savings would be “meaningful and sizable.”
And at NBCUniversal, the company has offered early retirement packages to employees with 10 years of service who are age 57 or older, including employees at the NBC News Group, led by Cesar Conde.
Early retirement packages are often, though not always, a prelude to cuts, depending on how many employees take the company up on its offer. At CNN, for example, about 130 buyouts in 2014 (tied to then-parent company Time Warner’s “Turner 2020” plan) were followed by cuts of about 170 employees.
As for where the cuts will be made, Feldstein notes that in the past, TV news divisions have “shut down foreign bureaus or whole units, such as consumer, documentary or investigative units that aren’t high-profile or on the air often.”
Among journalists, off-camera producers are often disproportionately affected, though in any financial crunch, no one is truly safe. “Highest earners are most vulnerable, although genuine stars bring in too much money to mess with,” Feldstein says.
The budgetary tightening also comes at a moment of transition for the cable news sector.
At Licht’s CNN, a new morning show led by Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins is just the first step in what will be a reimagining of much of the news channel’s lineup.
At Fox News, critical anchor roles have been filled in recent months, with Shannon Bream taking over the Fox News Sunday public affairs show, and Trace Gallagher taking over the midnight news hour Fox News @ Night.
At CNBC, president KC Sullivan told staffers Nov. 3 that the channel had a new mandate. “After spending time with many of you and closely reviewing the various aspects of our business, I believe we must prioritize and focus on our core strengths of business news and personal finance,” Sullivan wrote. “As a result of this strategic alignment to our core business, we will need to shift some of our priorities and resources and make some difficult decisions.”
Along with that memo, CNBC cut high-profile hire Shepard Smith’s The News. While the channel offered to let the show continue through the midterm elections and to the end of November, the staff and Smith decided to close up shop immediately.
And at MSNBC, a decision to cancel Tiffany Cross’ Saturday morning show The Cross Connection caught viewers off guard. In response to the programming decision — there’s no indication the show was cut because of budget issues — a Nov. 6 letter signed by dozens of Black leaders was sent to MSNBC president Rashida Jones, asking for a meeting. “This season is too grave a moment in American history to silence the voices of Black Women who, time and again, save America from itself. Tiffany Cross has long been one of those Black women — and her voice is needed now more than ever,” the letter said according to a copy obtained by THR, and which was signed by Color of Change’s Rashad Robinson, NAACP president Derrick Johnson, National Bar Association president Lonita Baker, and public figures like Jemele Hill and Cari Champion, among others. (A source familiar with the plans says that MSNBC has agreed to meet with some of the signatories, with a time to be determined.)
The challenge for news execs is to get those costs under control without hindering their ability to cover the news. But based on conversations with multiple TV news sources, it isn’t all gloom and doom when it comes to where the money is or isn’t flowing. Streaming is still a top corporate priority across the board, with CBS News having rebooted its streaming offering this year, ABC News continuing to develop its streaming platform, CNN expanding its digital presence (after shutting down CNN+ earlier this year), Fox News adding programming to its Fox Nation service, and NBC News leaning into its NBC News Now service.
Senior execs at CBS News and NBC News have told THR that their streaming services are profitable, and they are still in a fight for market share. A CNN source notes that while there will be cuts, the news division expects to continue investing resources in areas it deems critical. When it’s all said and done, where the cuts are made and where the new job postings are listed could signal the priorities for TV news divisions heading into 2024.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.