The Year in Media: 7 Cliff-Hangers as We Close out 2023

What will the New Year bring for CNN, Fox, The Washington Post, Paramount, The Telegraph, and more?
The Year in Media 7 CliffHangers as We Close out 2023
By Bettmann/Getty Images.

Can Mark Thompson save CNN?

I began this same feature last year by asking, “Can Chris Licht Turn CNN Around?” It turned out the answer to that question was ‘no.’ But the oddsmakers may feel more confident about Mark Thompson, still fewer than three months into his tenure leading the beleaguered cable news network. Behind the scenes, Thompson has, by all accounts, been saying the right things to instill confidence in CNN’s long-suffering worker bees that he was the right choice for the job, anointed by Warner Bros. Discovery boss David Zaslav practically in a heartbeat after Licht’s notorious implosion. The seasoned BBC pedigree, the triumphant New York Times turnaround, the crucial blend of television and digital smarts—these are the résumé highlights that seem to be nudging most observers to place their chips on Thompson. 

Mark ThompsonBy Bloomberg/Getty Images.

Cable, of course, is an industry struggling with inexorable decline, and CNN continues to struggle with ratings that typically keep the channel in a distant third behind MSNBC and Fox News. There’s also the question of whether the digital transformation Thompson oversaw as CEO of the Times is something he can replicate for an entirely different business model. Puck’s Dylan Byers reported recently that Thompson is at work on a 2024 business plan that will reorient CNN around a “multiplatform philosophy.” Which is to say, we should have a better sense of where things are headed in the coming months. As one CNN journalist put it to me on the day of Thompson’s coronation, “You have to think, if he can’t make this work, then no one can.”

Can Will Lewis win over The Washington Post?

Will Lewis, the former Telegraph and News Corp. honcho whom Jeff Bezos recently appointed to steady the Post, is another executive whose London lilt has served him well in meet and greets. “I think we’re all really excited by your enthusiasm,” one Post journalist told the incoming publisher last month during an introductory town hall. “I think we’re like most Americans who are charmed by the accent.” (Can’t hurt that the guy was knighted a few months ago.) 

William Lewisby Elliott O'Donovan for The Washington Post/Getty Images.

But make no mistake: Lewis is inheriting a restive staff, currently in the painful process of shedding about 240 jobs. He’s likewise inheriting business challenges that include stagnant revenues, soft subscription growth, and a miserable advertising market. (Then there’s the question of whether Lewis will seek to replace executive editor Sally Buzbee, although she presumably has a rapport with Lewis via his board seat at the Associated Press, where Buzbee served as executive editor before arriving at the Post, so there's that.) For Lewis’s part, he’s projecting nothing but mojo. “We’re going to expand. We’re going to get our swagger back,” he said in a recent interview. “I know that right now is not our greatest time, but we’re going to grow again. And we’re going to get that confidence back and that swagger back. I can tell you that with absolute confidence.” 

Will Fox and Smartmatic settle?

Eight months after Fox Corporation’s $787.5 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, it’s easy to forget the company faces another gargantuan defamation suit. This one’s actually the bigger of the two—Dominion went after Fox to the tune of $1.6 billion; Smartmatic wants a staggering $2.7 billion, as compensation for damages the company says it incurred over election-fraud lies aired on Fox News. The Fox-Dominion settlement was a nail biter, ironed out at the eleventh hour on the first day of a trial that had been scheduled for six weeks. This time, Fox appears even less inclined to settle than it was during the first go-round. That’s because the company feels it has a stronger case—Smartmatic’s voting machines were used in a single California county, whereas Dominion’s were used in at least 24 states, arguably making it easier for Dominion to demonstrate harm. As one of Fox’s attorneys told a New York State civil-court judge in September, “Smartmatic is not Dominion, and as much as they’d hope, they’re never going to be Dominion.” Still, while a trial is not expected until 2025, the two sides could theoretically come to terms sometime in the next 12 months. I’m told depositions have mostly concluded, including those of Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, who both testified over the past few weeks. Next up, though not until well into 2024 (fall is what I’ve heard), comes the summary judgment phase, in which each side will try to secure a favorable ruling without the hassle of going to trial.

Will Jeff Zucker take control of The Telegraph?

Jeff ZuckerBy Bruce Glikas/Getty Images.

It was already one of the hottest media stories on both sides of the Atlantic: a murderers’ row of media barons, from Rupert Murdoch to Paul Marshall to Lord Rothermere, vying for control of Britain’s conservative paper of record. Then, out of left field, former CNN boss Jeff Zucker came along with an offer not to be refused from RedBird IMI, the billion-dollar investment fund of which Zucker now serves as chief executive. The deal is enough to wipe out the debt owed by The Telegraphs longtime owners, the Barclay family, and it therefore halted the auction that was expected to rip the 168-year-old title from their hands. 

But there’s a catch: RedBird’s bid is backed by Abu Dhabi cash, and there are doubts about the willingness of UK regulators to wave the deal through, no matter how loudly Zucker belts out his promises of editorial independence. Whoever ends up winning the prize, 2024 may very well see The Telegraph expand in the US, where its new owner would be expected to capture the highly sought-after center- to center-right audience we hear so much about these days.

Will authors triumph over AI?

Elsewhere in the US court system, a group of A-list authors are inching forward in their lawsuit against OpenAI, the company behind the alleged human-creativity-killer ChatGPT. In October, a few weeks after the complaint was filed, Authors Guild CEO Mary Rasenberger told me the fire had been lit after “it became kind of clear that we weren’t gonna get the legislation we needed anytime soon.… We were starting to see a lot of AI-generated books on Amazon, and authors were getting upset. Creators are feeling an existential threat to their profession, so there’s a feeling of urgency.” With names like David Baldacci, Michael Connelly, John Grisham, and George R.R. Martin attached to the suit, it’s the most high-profile and aggressive move thus far in the creative community’s pursuit of AI licensing fees. The proceedings kicked off on November 29, when a New York federal judge presided over the first hearing in the case, and while these things take time, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the two sides could come to terms on copyright in the coming year.

Shari RedstoneBy David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

Will Shari Redstone sell?

What better way to end the year than with some juicy M&A rumblings? Matt Belloni got the ball rolling earlier this month with his scoop that David Ellison’s Skydance Media was “kicking the tires” on Shari Redstone’s National Amusements, the storied holding company that includes the Paramount assets, the erstwhile Viacom assets, CBS, Showtime, and a lot more. The deal-making has been caveated in the press with the requisite “unclear whether a deal will be reached” language. Still, the sheer prospect has juiced the salivary glands of journalists, analysts, and bankers alike. Redstone had famously waged a Shakespearean battle for her birthright media empire. That she may now relinquish her controlling stake is a Succession-worthy final plot twist. The stakes were summed up nicely in the lead of a recent Wall Street Journal feature: “Shari Redstone has a decision to make: fight or flight.”


Will there be any general election debates to cover?

Traditionally, these are a feeding frenzy for the news media, with networks hoping for blockbuster ratings as viewers tune in for roughly 90 minutes of rhetorical sparring along with seemingly endless analysis. But it feels like there’s nothing normal or traditional about the current state of American politics, and so why would we expect that the Republican and Democratic front-runners will engage one another live on national television? Donald Trump (let’s assume he remains the presumptive nominee and isn’t in jail) hasn’t shown up to scrap with his GOP challengers in recent months, and the Republican National Committee already ditched the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Joe Biden (let’s assume there isn’t some eleventh hour Gavin Newsom or Gretchen Whitmer surprise) also has not yet committed to participating in a general election debate. If Biden and Trump are indeed the final candidates, and they don’t meet face-to-face on a debate stage, it would be the first time that’s happened since the early 1970s. Then again, maybe it would be for the best?