CNN considers prime-time comic host as Gutfeld thrives on Fox
CNN is considering the hiring of a comic host in prime time, an idea that comes on the heels of the success of Greg Gutfeld’s late-night program on Fox News Channel.
The move by CNN would be a big one if it happens, shifting the network’s prime-time lineup from a series of news anchors talking about the day’s news and political events to one with a more entertainment-tinged, comedic focus.
It comes as cable news scrambles to find its footing in a streaming era where people are cutting their cable — a trend that is also hitting the late-night shows on the major networks.
CNN did not comment for this story, but network head Chris Licht has spoken on a number of occasions about the idea of hiring a comedian or some other entertainment personality to host a show in prime time on the network.
A person familiar with Licht’s thinking confirmed to The Hill that the likes of Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah and Bill Maher could be among his top targets.
“It has to be compelling and entertaining without hurting the news brand,” Licht said during an interview with The New York Times late last year, in which he cited Stewart, who is under contract with Apple TV, and his former boss Stephen Colbert as “the kind of people who’d work,” at CNN in prime time.
On Fox, Gutfeld has gradually grown into a ratings powerhouse since launching a revamped late-night comedy and political commentary show in 2021.
The Gutfeld show is modeled as a conservative alternative to the late-night humor espoused by the more left-wing hosts on traditional network shows, such as CBS’s Colbert and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel.
Licht, a former top producer for CBS’s “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” has been overseeing sweeping changes at the network and is tasked with rectifying its sluggish ratings and dipping profitability.
CNN has been without a permanent slate of prime-time hosts since former anchor Chris Cuomo was fired in 2021 and longtime anchor Don Lemon was moved to host Licht’s re-tooled morning show last fall.
Hiring a comedian to replace Cuomo and Lemon on weekday evenings would be a significant departure for CNN, and would signal more about Licht’s vision for CNN under the outlet’s new corporate ownership in WarnerBros. Discovery.
“This is what seems to be the inevitable directionality of American news coverage. The merging of the news units with the entertainment units,” said Matt Sienkiewicz, chair of the Boston College Communication Department.
“And then you have this sort of obvious example at Fox on the other side of the spectrum with Gutfeld proving that the news audience over there at Fox certainly is open for things that are branded as comedy. Everything about it seems almost necessary to me,” Sienkiewicz added.
Fox moved Gutfeld’s eponymous late-night show to five days a week nearly two years ago and has experienced a boom in ratings since.
Last year, Gutfeld’s show became the first late-night show to top CBS’s “The Late Show” in viewers for a full month since 2017. Licht took over as the executive producer of Colbert’s program in 2016.
Gutfeld’s nightly show, which features an opening monologue and an array of guests and comedic segments often mocking liberals, maintained more than 25 percent of the late-night audience share in 2022, and has ranked on average as the highest rated late-night program since August.
Gutfeld’s show averaged just over 2 million viewers a night last year, including 342,000 in the key 25-54 age demographic, topping NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in viewers, each of which typically pulls in an average of between 1 and 1.5 million viewers per night.
On cable, Gutfeld also beat all of cable in late night viewers in the 25-54 age demographic and the younger 18-49 subset of viewers, besting Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” and HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.” In a separate interview with the journalist Kara Swisher, CNN’s new top boss deflected when asked directly about Gutfeld’s late night success at Fox.
“I wouldn’t call him — I would call him just an entertaining show,” Licht told Swisher. “I would not call him a late-night show. As someone worked on a late-night show and knows what goes into that, I wouldn’t put it in the same category.”
Licht told Swisher he would not “rule out some kind of show that involved people talking in a way that was not delivering news in a straightforward manner.”
The development also comes during a turbulent time across the world of late night and political comedic television.
TBS last year canceled “Full Frontal” with comedian Samantha Bee, and James Corden stepped down from his hosting duties in a late-night time slot on CBS. The Times reported last fall that NBCUniversal had considered moving the late-night program hosted by Seth Myers to MSNBC.
Observers say that blending news with comedy and satire has proved successful for other traditional media brands in the past but takes time to execute effectively and retaining a meaningful audience for that specific kind of content can be challenging.
“It can work. It’s more likely to work if it’s developed over time as opposed to popping somebody into the space,” Sienkiewicz said. “Comedy is a very difficult business to be in, period. And the idea of predicting what’s going to work for an audience is a daunting one.”