Mel's Diner: Busting Molds And Breaking Bread

CBS News exec and 'CBS This Morning' honcho Chris Licht reveals how to keep his ‘Eye’ on change
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THE DISH: Chris Licht apparently likes to blow things up. Perhaps because he excels at it. As cocreator and original executive producer of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, he helped forge a fresh take on morning news. He’s been at it again for the last three years at CBS News as VP of programming and executive producer of CBS This Morning, where he’s dutifully carried out the charge of creating a morning broadcast news show as if there had never been one—and make it in the image of the CBS News brand.

With Licht, one must expect the unexpected…which is why it was somehow not surprising that he would reveal something you just don’t do—but he did—during our lunch at Trattoria Dell’Arte. True, the restaurant is walking distance from the broadcast center and they know him here, but there’s another big reason he has great affection for this place. A little over a year ago, Licht invited his rivals, er, counterparts at ABC’s Good Morning America and NBC’s Today to a “top-secret lunch” at the Midtown Manhattan media haunt.

“I emailed [GMA ’s then-senior executive producer, now senior VP, ABC News programs, news gathering and special events] Tom Cibrowski, and I said, ‘Would you ever want to?’ and he was like, ‘Sure!’ And then I emailed [Today’s executive producer] Don [Nash], and he was like, ‘Sure!’ and then we kind of got it together,” Licht says. “We sat down and literally five feet away from us was Robin Roberts. And she was like, ‘What are you—you guys actually do know each other?’ It was very fun.”

The competing producers knew each other but had never gotten together, Licht says, adding that they discussed “the common challenges that we all face” and “that only the three of us would understand….It was very cool.”

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Earlier in the day, before our lunch, Licht spoke at B&C, Multichannel News and TV Technology’s Live TV Summit, where he said, “it defies every ounce of my being to be in third” in the morning news ratings race, but that CTM is “finally in that rhythm, finally a well-oiled machine behind the scenes.” He added, “The talent has really gelled, and now the biggest challenge is, ‘How do you get what we do in front of people?’” Over lunch, the exec, producer and also author of the book What I Learned When I Almost Died: How a Maniac TV Producer Put Down His Blackberry and Started to Live His Life, elaborated on competition, CTM’s future and more. Edited highlights of the conversation follow.

When you joined CBS, CBS News president David Rhodes called you an innovator. What do you do to stay on top of things, to keep things fresh and be an innovator?

It’s actually really simple. You surround yourself with people who aren’t afraid to tell you you’ve got to change, who aren’t afraid to tell you, ‘This doesn’t work anymore.’ Or, ‘This is starting to feel old.’ Or, ‘That’s not a good idea.’ And then we have a discussion about it.

My No. 2 guy, Ryan Kadro, he’ll just say to me, ‘The open. It’s not working. I hate that shot.’ I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with the shot? It’s nice. It’s the skyline and the CBS This Morning.’ He says, ‘It’s boring. We’ve got to do better.’ And then I go, ‘All right.’ And he goes away and two months later comes back with this time lapse thing that he and a producer put together with an editor and it’s like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing!’ And then, ‘All right, let’s put it on TV.’ … And you have to create that culture. And ultimately you come up with a broadcast that’s really innovative and fresh and it’s because you’re never really happy with it. You can be pleased with the product, but you never feel like you’re there.

One of the hallmarks of a CBS News program is enterprise stories.

Original reporting.

Original reporting. And that takes a lot of work. What place do you see that having at CBS This Morning —and is that potentially a distinguishing factor?

One of the things we founded the show on was providing a stage for that. Being a home for that. We certainly launch a fair amount of enterprise reporting based on producers and correspondents, but I just want to be a place where if you’re [CBS News foreign correspondent] Holly Williams in Syria, and you get shot at, or you just have this great original reporting because you went in and you saw ISIS, you’re not waiting for the Evening News to put that on. Your producer can send an email and we’re like, ‘My god, that’s awesome. Let’s do it. Tomorrow morning, you’re on!’ There’s such an infrastructure of CBS News that these things bubble up and you just have to be receptive to it and be a place that’s friendly to correspondents and give them such an experience that they want to come on.

And that could be one of the ways you drive viewer sampling, right?

That’s really our focus, getting the word out that there’s something different in the mornings. Not something better, just something different. Part of the problem was we were doing the same thing as everybody else. Now we’re doing something different and there’s an audience for that. And there may be an audience that doesn’t know that we’re doing it.

Two seasons in, do you think CBS This Morning has raised the morning news game?

I wouldn’t say raised—we’ve changed the game. I certainly think we’ve raised the game with us, but I think in morning television we’ve changed the game in a good way. I’ll see something on the Today show that I like, and, ‘Oh that’s a good idea.’ I might steal it. If they see something with me, they’re going to steal it. But at least now we’re in that conversation.

On the topic of competition, I read in June that you went to your old stomping grounds at NBC and got turned away at first, that security told you no-can-do. How surprised were you?

I was embarrassed more than anything, because I was there with [CTM’s] Charlie [Rose] and Gayle [King], who were doing Seth Meyers’ show….I can’t be in the building unless there is signoff from a certain office. I think it was one of those bureaucratic things. [MSNBC president] Phil Griffin I saw last night. He gave me a huge greeting and it’s like, it’s fine. It was funny. Now it’s funny. But it was just a little embarrassing.

Leslie Moonves is known for being hands-on with creative product. Certainly his roots go back more to primetime. I’m curious how much he weighs in.

If he does, he’d weigh in with my bosses…. But hands down, there’d be no CBS This Morning without him personally saying, ‘I’m going to take a lot of money to build this from the ground up, something that may or may not pay off, and I believe in this and I believe in what you’re trying to do, so go for it.’ It wasn’t focus-grouped. It wasn’t analyzed. It was like his gut saying, all right [CBS News chairman] Jeff [Fager], [CBS News president] David [Rhodes]—go for it.

So you’re a competitive guy. We talked a little bit this morning about the tradition of CBS, underdog-turned-champ. Do you envision that for CBS This Morning , taking over the ratings from so far behind? What will it take to do that and when do you think it will happen?

Yeah. If I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t be doing it. Something has to catch fire. We have to be in position to capitalize on it. And I’m not sure what it is or when it will come, but there will be this moment where we just have to be there and ready. So when will that happen? I don’t know. As long as we’re moving in the right direction. As long as we continue to show improvement to close the gap. That’s all that really matters. Do I have fantasies about that? Yeah. But it’s hard overcoming decades.

How important was Norah O’Donnell getting the interview with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell?

A seminal moment of the show. It was great for the show. It was great for Norah. It was great for CBS News. It puts you in the conversation. That interview was seen everywhere. Just like I felt like when Charlie [Rose] got Assad or when Gayle [King] knocks it out of the park. All of those are so important. Because it just reinforces that we’re a place that’s going to get those big interviews when they matter.

We will never win the ‘Hey, a new movie is coming out. We’ll do seven parts on it to make sure we get the big star.’ That’s not going to be us. One of my favorite stories was Bill Murray, The Monuments Men. They did a cast interview on GMA. And they said, ‘Well, will you take Bill alone?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah!’ Charlie did an hour-long interview with him that is literally one of the greatest interviews Bill Murray has ever done. So yes, were we second? Yes. Was it unbelievable? Yes. So I don’t really care. As long as we’re going to get something different.

This morning you shared some great stuff as far as dos and don’ts about live television and I’m curious if you can apply that to the alchemy of a morning show. What needs to come together to make a show work and how?

With the talent or everything?

You tell me!

I think it’s two separate things.

For the talent, you can’t produce your way out of a ratings slide, because it’s all about the connection that the talent has with the audience and each other. Now, you can produce your way into a ratings slide. You can make bad decisions and make the show not good. But you’re never going to be able to take talent that isn’t connecting with the audience and produce your way out of that.

At the beginning and the end of the day, it’s how you at home, do you have a connection to the talent? At both Morning Joe and here, the best way I was able to contribute to that was to get out of the way. And not over-produce the talent. … Allowing things to blossom but if they don’t, they don’t, and to be ready if they do, to be in the moment of the show every day, every segment. Be in the moment, ready to make something longer, make something shorter. Just to be in the moment.

You know, the three of them have gelled amazingly. But some days they don’t get along. Some days, somebody is cranky. But guess what? Everybody in America has days with the people they love the most and they get cranky. This is counterintuitive, but I don’t try to change that.

For news teams forever the going theory is, it’s all happy with big smiles.

Yeah, I don’t do that. I think the audience is like, ‘Oh, wow, somebody is in a bad mood.’ And then the next day they’re in a good mood, and can say, ‘Oh, I get it!’ I don’t try to manufacture how they all gel. They all genuinely like each other and we start there. And then they get comfortable with each other on the set and that takes so much time. They’re on a roll now. It’s beautiful to watch. It really is. The same with Morning Joe. Don’t try to produce that, just let that happen. Conversely, the actual mechanics of the show, you have to be really, really dialed in and producing. You don’t have to do everything but you have to know everything that’s going on.

What are some of your leadership philosophies?

I think leadership is you’re fallible. You don’t have all the answers. I can be wrong.... But I think ultimately, it begins with people thinking that you have their back. That you’re going to protect them because so much flows from that. I know this firsthand, I felt that David and Jeff had my back so if I tried something and it didn’t work they had ownership in me being successful.… You have to choose your senior team very well. They have to have your values. They have to be an extension of your culture that you’re trying to instill. And they have to be ready to tell you you’re wrong. I spout off all the time, ‘Well if they do this, I’m going to do this!’ ‘No, you’re not,’ they’ll say. OK. You don’t have all the answers and that’s OK. But you will always have somebody’s back.

And then practice what you preach. Don’t tell people to take your vacations when you don’t take your vacations.

I think what I’m most proud of CBS This Morning is not what you see on TV. It’s the group of people that puts that show together. I didn’t really inherit it. We started from scratch and then a bunch of us sat in a room and imagined what the show could be. It’s really remarkable. That’s the thing I’m really most proud of. And people see the result of that on TV. If you see a staff that is engaged and happy and invested, that shows up on television. Just as the opposite shows up on television. It’s not easy to do that. You have to have support.

Do you see Jeff and David’s roles as where you’re headed?

I have no idea. I have never been able to predict what I’m going to do next. I’m a night guy. I never in a million years thought that I’d be in mornings. Now I love it.

Not a morning person? By metabolism or whatever?

Not a morning person. I used to do the 11 o’clock news and I did Scarborough Country at night. But now I love doing the morning. But I could have never predicted that. I would never have predicted I would have gone to CBS to start a morning show, so I have no idea. But the way I operate is put your head down, kick ass, and stuff finds you. Exciting things find you.

You have both a daily producing job and the executive job. Why is that?

When they hired me, there was a chance [MSNBC’s Morning Joe duo] Joe [Scarborough] and Mika [Brzezinski] were going to come [to CBS]. When we first started talking, they said, ‘Well, obviously, if Joe and Mika come, you should be the executive producer. If Joe and Mika don’t come, we will have to hire an executive producer.’ And then I think the more we talked, we quickly agreed that this is going to be such an undertaking, to start a show from nothing, that why have another layer? Ultimately I’m going to be responsible, and I can’t build something like this via email. You’ve got to be in there with your sleeves rolled up.

I think at the end of the day, the executive part of my job, the VP part of my job, is because they knew that if this show was going to have a fighting chance to change the culture at CBS, that it needed somebody who was going to be in the room for everything. And that was kind of a brilliant move on their part, because it automatically set the tone for, “this is important. We’re going to make this work as an organization.” It goes to the broader sense that this was absolutely set up to succeed.

In your book, you wrote that when MSNBC president Phil Griffin asked you about your mind state following your health crisis, you said you wanted to do something bigger. Is that basically what the move was about?

In a lot of ways, yes, but I don’t want you to misunderstand that ‘I want to do something bigger’ is like a network morning show vs. a Morning Joe show, because that’s not what this is about. Both were equally satisfying but in different ways and the size of the stage isn’t important.

You don’t think, ‘Wow, I’m doing Morning Joe, which has X number of viewers,’ or ‘Oh, wow, I’m doing CBS This Morning, which has’—It’s not about that. What I meant by doing something bigger is that, you really want to leave your mark.

Also in your book, you wrote, ‘You cannot enjoy a job, you cannot do it well if you’re always afraid of losing it and I wasn’t anymore.’ How did that influence your decision to leave?

I felt much more comfortable in taking a risk. That if it did fail, my life wouldn’t be over. So if you take that out of the equation and you look at it just in a vacuum, and say, this is an incredible challenge with incredible people—and part of the joy of life is putting yourself in a position to take chances—it’s almost like when you’re 22 or 23. I moved out to Los Angeles without a job. What if it didn’t work out? OK, move back east. Who cares? It gives you a little bit of that.

People think, oh, well, you’re going to slack off in your job because you don’t care about getting fired. That’s not what it is at all. You’re just willing to see the purity of an opportunity without it being clouded by the realities of, ‘Wow, if I fall flat on my face, then I’m screwed.’ So you’re making decisions based on what you think in your gut is the right thing to do and not covering your butt.

There’s that and then in the larger picture, I want to give this thing a chance. Most people don’t get a chance to build a morning show. And to get to do it twice, particularly working so closely to Jeff and Dave, that to me was very attractive, to learn from these guys who are incredible TV producers. That’s not false modesty, I know that’s like saying the right things, like it’s, ‘I work with a director and he was so great!’ No, I felt at Morning Joe that we had done something remarkable. And I just wanted to try something completely different and if I was going to do that, I had to really trust the people that hired me. That was so huge to me that these guys were as excited for me to come there to make this work.

Did you go to those guys or did they come to you—Jeff and David?

When I was sick, David emailed me. And I had met him once for lunch like a year before. We just liked to stay in touch.

In the vein that, like maybe someday you’d work together—

Maybe someday. And then he emailed me and I never forgot that.

To say—

‘I hope you’re OK. I heard the news.’ My wife read it to me because that was her job. She would read my emails to me while I was in the hospital. And I always thought that was very cool. And then the day that it was announced that he got the CBS job, I emailed him and said, ‘Wow, that’s great. Congratulations!’ And he said I may have been the last email he got at his Bloomberg address because they shut it down. And then he emailed me and he said we should talk. And then I went in to talk to him.

I was the first person he hired.… I knew after that first meeting. Joe and Mika were at an event in the Helmsley building and they were in the middle of giving a speech and I walked in, and they looked at me and I looked at them and they wrapped up the speech and we went into a side room.

They knew you were going to go over to see him?

I was very transparent about any interview I had, anything I did.

And is that idea of them coming along long gone because now you guys have your talent set?

They’re happy where they are. I think it worked out best for everybody. What they do, [you] can’t do in the confines of a network morning show. And maybe they’d want to try something different, but they’re so good at what they do where they’re doing it. I think everybody came out for the best.

THE DISH: Chris Licht apparently likes to blow things up. Perhaps because he excels at it. As cocreator and original executive producer of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, he helped forge a fresh take on morning news. He’s been at it again for the last three years at CBS News as VP of programming and executive producer of CBS This Morning, where he’s dutifully carried out the charge of creating a morning broadcast news show as if there had never been one—and make it in the image of the CBS News brand.

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