CNN Looks to Slash Budgets, Star Salaries as Mark Thompson Digs In

As the cable network suffers ongoing dismal ratings, Thompson needs to cut costs — including $50 million in on-air talent

Compiled image featuring CNN stars Jake Tapper, Poppy Harlow and Anderson Cooper, along with new CNN boss Mark Thompson
CNN CEO Mark Thompson (foreground) with (l-r) anchors Jake Tapper, Poppy Harlow and Anderson Cooper (TheWrap/Chris Smith)

CNN boss Mark Thompson is looking to fund his digital-first transformation by cutting anchor salaries — currently more than $50 million — as he seeks to remake the ailing cable network into a U.S. version of the BBC, media observers and former CNN executives have told TheWrap.

Thompson, the former head of the BBC and The New York Times, has said he wants to unleash a “revolution” at the 43-year-old news network, and will not spare the network’s formidable talent roster.

Top CNN earners include prime-time anchor Anderson Cooper, who makes an estimated $20 million a year; Wolf Blitzer, who earns about $15 million; Jake Tapper, who pulls in more than $8.5 million; and Chris Wallace, who makes about $8 million, two insiders said. Other co-anchors, including John Berman, Kate Bolduan and Sara Sidner, make in the $1 million to $2 million range, a third executive with knowledge of salaries told TheWrap.

Thompson has indicated in a staff memo he is looking to trim production costs “that now look difficult to support,” which media experts and former staffers say is likely to mean cuts to at least some of those big salaries. But contracts for some of the biggest stars, including Cooper and Tapper, are not due to expire until after the presidential election — at the end of 2025 or 2026, according to two people familiar with the situation. 

“The first thing they need to do is dramatically reduce costs,” Rich Greenfield, a partner and media and tech analyst at LightShed Partners, told The Wrap. “If you work at CNN your compensation is going to go down dramatically over the next…five years, there’s just no other way around it.”

The moves come as Thompson is under pressure to try to replicate his success in building digital models at the BBC and The New York Times. CNN is suffering low ratings and continues to trail its rivals Fox and MSNBC, as linear television more broadly continues a precipitous decline in viewership and advertising income.

Last week Thompson announced he was removing hosts Poppy Harlow and Phil Mattingly from “This Morning.” He also reshuffled “CNN News Central” from 7 a.m. until 10 a.m. with co-anchors Berman, Bolduan and Sidner. Thompson said CNN would no longer produce morning programming from New York. All morning shows would be produced out of Atlanta, creating huge savings.

Greenfield said the best strategy for Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN’s parent company, is to sell the cable network while it still has meaningful TV distribution. “But they don’t seem like they want to,” he said. “The most likely scenario is they cut a lot of cost out of it.”

Anderson Cooper
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper (Getty Images)

Thompson, who was BBC Director General from 2004 to 2012, isn’t used to having U.S. TV news anchor salaries on the balance sheet. The BBC is funded through a public license fee, and the anchors earn a tiny fraction of a CNN salary. Likewise, the salaries at The New York Times, where Thompson was CEO for eight years until 2020, are minute in comparison to CNN.

The highest paid BBC presenter, according to public records, is former soccer star Gary Lineker, who earns $1.7 million. 

The era of monumentally paid anchors is over, and the stars at CNN would never get such a salary at another network, Greenfield said. “It’s not like CNN will lose their talent, there’s nowhere to go that would pay that much.”

One veteran executive who works with news talent noted that MSNBC, where top star salaries are generally lower than at CNN — other than for Rachel Maddow, who makes $30 million a year — is chomping at the bit to pick up a star anchor or two. “If they can put the death nail in CNN by getting a piece of talent they will do it,” the insider said.

That same insider said that rather than slashing anchor salaries CNN should cut back on its multi-anchor shows. “Don’t have three anchors anchor a show,” the person said. “What’s the point of that? It’s ridiculous.”

If you work at CNN your compensation is going to go down dramatically over the next…five years, there’s just no other way around it.

Rich Greenfield, analyst

CNN+ and the end of the ‘big fat cable bundle’

Thompson has not been altogether clear about his intentions. “We need to recapture some of the swagger and innovation of the early CNN,” Thompson wrote in memo last month to CNN staff. “It’s time for a revolution.”

The CNN of today, he added, “is no longer that buccaneering outsider but a tenured incumbent.” Despite all its strengths, “there’s currently too little innovation and risk-taking,” he wrote.

CNN has already tried and failed at a digital subscription service. The network killed off CNN+ in April 2022, just a month after its launch.  In the first two weeks after CNN+ launched, 150,000 subscribers signed up for CNN+. Yet fewer than 10,000 watched daily. Then last fall WBD added the new CNN Max to Warner Bros. Discovery’s Max streamer.

New CNN boss Mark Thompson wearing a black jacket and pink shirt, speaking onstage at a conference.
CNN CEO Mark Thompson (Getty Images)

CNN+ was a lost opportunity in which WBD showed a lack of commitment, one of the insiders said. “They spent a few hundred million dollars developing it and then gave up immediately and fired 300 people,” the person said. “The point was to get a placeholder in the digital space, and a year in, the streaming service would look very different. They missed that chance.”

The “big fat cable bundle” that has underpinned linear TV, including cable news, “is in freefall,” Greenfield said. Adding insult to injury, CNN was not included in a direct-to-consumer sports juggernaut announced last week between ESPN, Fox and Warner Bros. Discovery. 

CNN’s linear ratings are in free fall. The network had an average of 538,000 nightly viewers in the 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. block from Jan. 15 until Jan. 21, according to data from Nielsen. CNN “This Morning” averaged 326,000 viewers in January, plus 87,000 on an HLN simulcast. That compares to 1.06 million for Fox News’ Fox & Friends and 1.01 million for MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

Prime time on CNN hasn’t fared much better. CNN is averaging 668,000 viewers in primetime for the past year. “Anderson Cooper 360” is the biggest show with an average of 717,000 viewers year to date. “Erin Burnett Outfront” is slightly behind with 716,000, with Jake Tapper at 682,000. The Source with Kaitlin Collins is averaging 583,000 viewers.

In late January, CNN’s total viewership in prime time lagged not only rivals Fox and MSNBC but behind the History Channel and an obscure cable network, INSP, which airs Western TV shows and films and was founded by televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

Megyn Kelly on the set of her new YouTube show
Megyn Kelly has kept her voice in the news cycle by becoming a YouTube and SiriusXM star.

TV anchors of the future

Thompson has tapped executives to help execute the digital transformation, which includes developing the news anchors of the future.

Alex MacCallum, CNN+’s former head of product, re-starts at CNN on March 1. She has been named executive vice president of digital products and services and will be charged with developing new concepts to attract digital audiences under Thompson.

The news anchors of the future must be digital and social media stars, said David Clinch, co-founder of Media Growth Partners, which helps news organizations devise revenue models. “The only way to get even close to the salary levels that network anchors used to demand is to have the ability to produce content and value across broadcast, digital and streaming,” Clinch told The Wrap. “But there are models like revenue/profit share and even licensing that clever agents might be asking for their clients from now on.”

Meanwhile, the news landscape is shifting. Former Fox News and NBC anchor Megyn Kelly’s reappearance on YouTube demonstrates how talent can build an audience far from the linear world. Kelly has 1.69 million subscribers on YouTube and a multi-year deal with SiriusXM.

British broadcaster Piers Morgan also gave up his live, hour-long evening news show on Talk TV, titled “Piers Morgan Uncensored,” for a YouTube broadcast that has 2.35 million subscribers. He appeared on CNN between 2011 and 2014.

“There’s something quite anachronistic about a show like mine still trying to create old-fashioned TV for a pre-scheduled time slot each night for a relatively small audience – when we’re getting such gigantic audiences digitally,” Morgan told Semafor.

CNN has 16 million subscribers on YouTube but only provides clips from their shows, not entire episodes.

Don Lemon, who was jettisoned by CNN in April 2023, along with his $7 million a year salary, after a disastrous head-on collision with his morning co-anchors Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, is launching a new show on X in a few weeks. He has a content deal with Elon Musk to provide 30-minute episodes, three times a week.

“The problem is these initial changes to the linear program schedule have really been underwhelming, and as people have been speculating, are you really going to kill the golden goose on the TV network before you can actually do anything good with it on digital?” another TV industry source said.

The issue is time, TV experts who spoke to TheWrap underscored. How long can Thompson straddle a dual model of digital and linear television before it heads in the way of print media and becomes digital full time?

In the end, star anchor salaries are tough to justify without evidence that they can generate digital value. Linear ratings can no longer be the benchmark, as CNN’s big stars have all borne witness to a crash in ratings during their recent contract periods. 

And that could lead to some awkward contract negotiations over the next two years. “Unless they have really dynamic digital power before they renegotiate, they are going to get slashed,” said one former news executive.

A separate CNN staffer added that rank-and-file staffers remain in the dark about how Thompson’s digital first strategy might work.

“We only know as much as Mark puts out in his memos. We are all still waiting for the other shoe to drop,” the staffer said. “Until then, its business as usual.”

Sharon Waxman contributed to this report

Comments

8 responses to “CNN Looks to Slash Budgets, Star Salaries as Mark Thompson Digs In”

  1. George Avatar
    George

    I got a novel idea! How about not being a liberal / leftist rag and doing what journalists are SUPPOSED to do – creating a fair and balanced story! Ya’ think that may improve CNN’s dismal ratings?

  2. A.J. Avatar
    A.J.

    It’s too late, once you lose a costumer they stay gone. Plus it’ll be hard to get Gen-Z to watch since they get all their info on their phone.

  3. respect for CNN back in the day Avatar
    respect for CNN back in the day

    The thing is that CNN’s salaries were always on the low end, certainly back in the day when CNN was based out of CNN Center in ATL. Georgia has been, and remains, an “at will” employment state, and those of us who worked for CNN were always faced with the “if you don’t like it, there is a big line of people who would be glad to work here” excuse when any kind of suggestion – not just a salary issue – was brought up. And the thing is…there WAS a big line of potential replacements coming in, but the replacements didn’t necessarily know their rumps from a hole in the ground w/r/t news presentation. (Ah, the stories I could tell!) But OK, that was a management decision. Many of us who loved our jobs took the low pay and told ourselves that we were bringing the news as it should be brought.

    At the same time, CNN *used* to pride itself on being an actual news source; its leadership was Burt Reinhardt, Tom Johnson, Eason Jordan, all of whom were committed to fair presentation of issues. I wasn’t a fan of Reinhardt, but there was never a coherent argument against his leadership because he was always dedicated to news.

    And then came the Jeff Zucker era, which – as both a viewer and a former employee – made me sad.

    1. Ronald McLemmon Avatar
      Ronald McLemmon

      CNN “workers” should sue for the same minimum wage Starbucks and McDonalds teenagers are supposed to get in New York; $50/ hour.

  4. Vendicar Decarian Avatar
    Vendicar Decarian

    17,000 dead children in Gaza.
    America willingly and eagerly supplied the bombs and the bullets, knowing full well what was being done.
    That is Complicity in mass murder and Genocide.
    Remember that, and act against them appropriately.

  5. roadsterred Avatar
    roadsterred

    How about returning back to your roots of reporting the news without prejudice and bias ala Ted Turner?

    You may regain some of your credibility instead of being perceived as the Communist News Network.

  6. imafin Avatar
    imafin

    what on air talent?

  7. tom roberts Avatar
    tom roberts

    Missed the haters of the right acosta and tapper

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