CNN’s Chris Licht Defends Decision to Air Bill Maher Segments, Says Network Is Uninterested in ‘Partisan Hackery’

The news network’s chief executive says he’s “in conversations with culturally relevant individuals from the worlds of entertainment, sports and comedy”

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Following the news Monday that CNN will air Bill Maher’s “Overtime,” an offshoot of his HBO show “Real Time,” on Friday nights beginning Feb. 3, CNN CEO Chris Licht has denied that the news network is looking to do a topical comedy show in its primetime slot.

“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,” the former “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” executive producer told The Los Angeles Times.

But when pressed on the possibility of tapping comedians for a primetime show, Licht said that CNN is “in conversations with culturally relevant individuals from the worlds of entertainment, sports and comedy who can bring fresh and unique perspectives to the news.”

“I’m casting a wide net to help broaden the appeal of our prime time,” he said. “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.”

Los Angeles Times reporter Stephen Battaglio pointed out that many comedians are liberal and claimed that even Maher has a “liberal sensibility.” Battaglio proceeded to question how a move such as “Overtime” would work as CNN seeks to distance itself from politically partisan programming.

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

He emphasized that CNN is focused on broadening the appeal of its primetime lineup and restoring trust.

“I think we have to restore trust. It’s that simple,” he said. “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.”

Licht was also asked about how he has brought more Republican lawmakers on the network.

“It was a very simple message. If you’re looking for a softball interview, then that’s not us. However, we also want to be a place where we can have an open exchange of ideas no matter where you’re coming from, and that you would be treated with respect,” he explained. “We won’t invite you on to score points on you. Come on and have an honest and open discussion about what your vision is for the future of this country, and be prepared to answer respectful, tough questions about that. And that’s the message I brought when I went up on Capitol Hill.”

According to Licht, Republicans’ fear in appearing on the network was that they would “not get a fair shake.” He also pointed out that some people came on the air specifically to fundraise.

“I don’t want CNN to be a place where you’re going to have such a combative experience that you go fundraise off of it,” he added. “It is best for our audience to understand where everybody is coming from.”

The Times’ interview concluded with a question on what Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav thinks of CNN’s coverage. Zaslav has been looking to find about $3 billion in cost savings after acquiring WarnerMedia, which has included laying off hundreds of CNN staffers and shuttering the CNN+ streaming service.

“I would describe him as a super fan. He watches CNN all the time, and we have conversations about it all the time, but not in a directive way,” Licht said. “He loves CNN. If he had a Nielsen box, we would be in great shape.”