Some Lemons Can’t Be Repaired

When my first car was totaled when I foolishly lent it to my college roommate when two girls he had invited over to “study” needed a lift back to campus. I need a replacement set of wheels badly.  A big bodybuilder friend of his claimed to have a “steal” for me, a low-mileage, late-model sedan, far less sporty than the low-slung coupe I was proudly driving around in, but I could have it immediately, and for cash, once the insurance settlement check was received.   He pressured me for weeks as the claim was being settled, dropping the price a few hundred from his initial ask and ever reminding me I’d have some cash back in my pocket, somewhat of a reward from the traumatic experience.

I bought that car, it got me home from college after graduation, and then immediately started rattling.  When I took it in for service, it was confirmed that it had been in a serious front-end collision, had engine block damage that needed immediate repair, which just about drained my cash in hand, and never had more than a few months without needing service for the duration of the time we owned it–I say “we”, because when I moved to Los Angeles I left the car for my sister, who had just gotten her driver’s license.  But I didn’t charge her a dime, so I can at least safely say she got the car below its actual value.   I lost nearly $4000 on my first lemon.

Which brings us to what CNN is losing on its Lemon.

Anchorman Don had risen to prominence in prime time on the heels of Chris Cuomo’s rise in audience, solidifying a 9 PM time slot that had struggled since Larry King had ruled the slot.  But when Cuomo’s blind support for his disgraced brother Andrew turned into a nightmare ratings and credibility downturn that resulted in his firing, Lemon’s 10 PM audience plummeted.   In the meantime, longtime CNN honcho Jeff Zucker was dismissed after his own track record with female co-workers was seen in the same light as the former New York governor, and the network was part of the haul that Discovery took over when it acquired Warner Media, along with the much more debt-ridden assets that were their corporate brethren.

Enter new hire Chris Licht, the architect of MORNING JOE but for many years running a late-night talk show, as the new head, with a mandate from our friend Yosemite Zas to make money.  Licht envisioned that a successful show in the morning, where more hours are available for a wider ranger of viewers than in prime time, would be a way to make a quick buck.  And in Poppy Harlow and Kaitlyn Collins, he had in camp two rising stars on opposite ends of the political spectrum, with a developing chemistry likened to what Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb have forged at THE TODAY SHOW.  But they lacked an adult in the room, Licht believed.

So, using the carrot of a contract renewal that resulted in Lemon’s salary now being more than triple of what he was making five years earlier, last fall he agreed to move to the daytime shift and serve as monkey in the middle between Harlow and Collins on a revamped CNN THIS MORNING.  At the time, Lemon vehemently denied rumblings that he saw it as a demotion and publicly claimed he was all in.  Except he was about to be driving a lemon of an idea that was, as Carlos Greer of The New York Post described last week, as ill-conceived and poorly received as anything attempted in morning news in recent years:

Several sources and insiders believe the network’s new boss, Chris Licht, is a “disaster” — and that one of his biggest failures is rushing the launch of “CNN This Morning,” which is the network’s lowest-rated morning show in a decade, according to The Wrap.

Licht lured Lemon from primetime with a heftier deal, placing him with Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins — who quickly rose to stardom at the network covering former President Donald Trump’s administration.

The trio, however, has failed the chemistry test, with one insider describing the show as “unwatchable.”

“No one agrees with Chris. No one’s talking about the real problem, how [his plan] imploded in the evenings and now the network is a disaster, a complete dumpster fire, with so many people fired, laid-off, and they’re pumping out stories about Don,” the insider said.

Lemon didn’t do himself any favors on Thursday’s broadcast when he “put his foot in his mouth,” and alienated female viewers by repeating a sexist idea that “a woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.”

Another source told us Lemon was just pulling from former CNN boss Jeff Zucker’s playbook, who they claim, “fed [talent] a daily diet of ‘be provocative.’”

“I think Don got caught up. He’s trying to find his identity on this show, and he was trying to be provocative. No way he believes that, but it was so dumb for him to say it — even if he thought he was trying to make some point,” they said.

What Don Lemon said about Nikki Haley was unkind, but it was a) no worse than anything that a personality like RuPaul–who shares a common demography and sexual orientation with Lemon–would snark about someone like Haley if asked and would likely get lots of laughs and acclaim for doing– and b) a lot nicer than what her opponent for the Republican presidential nomination is likely to say if he happened to take her candidacy even a shred as seriously as he take the yet-to-be-officially announced candidacy of the governor of Florida.   What Don Lemon said about about Haley was a dozen, not a fireable offense.

Don Lemon’s bigger issues lie in the way he openly argues with his on-air colleagues, one of whom (Collins) was even less thrilled with being moved to a morning show than was Lemon, and was being paid nowhere near what Lemon was getting for the trouble.  They may reportedly lie in the way he privately treats producers and behind-the-scenes staffers, reportedly with a disdain and attitude that can be only be described as “diva-like”.

But his biggest offense is clearly what Joseph A. Wulfsohn of FOX reminded his readers of when he reported yesterday on the most recent events of L’Affaire Citron:

“I sat down with Don and had a frank and meaningful conversation. He has agreed to participate in formal training, as well as continuing to listen and learn. We take this situation very seriously,” Licht said in the memo first obtained by Fox News Digital. “It is important to me that CNN balances accountability with fostering a culture in which people can own, learn and grow from their mistakes. To that end, Don will return to CNN This Morning on Wednesday.”

But Lemon’s problems go beyond his on-air comments. “CNN This Morning” viewership has already dipped 20% since its debut in November, reaching only an average of 364,000 in recent weeks, according to Nielsen Media Research. Even the audience of “New Day,” the Jeff Zucker-era morning program that was scrapped by Licht, eclipsed its replacement. 

At a reported eight-figure salary, it’s likely Don Lemon has bought more than his share of cars in his lifetime, and probably along the way bought a few that didn’t work all that well.  He also knows that the combination of higher spend and lower return doesn’t usually lead to job security.  Yes, his immediate boss, Licht, supports him enough to stand up to the kind of outside pressure that is clamoring more for Lemon’s ouster because he dared to dis a prominent female politician.  And because a good deal of that disdain comes from the Biden White House, Licht is all the more determined to try and shrug it off.  After all, he is being charged with going after a more inclusive audience, and that includes the kind of viewers who would actually find what Lemon said about Haley funny.

Ezcept that those people aren’t watching, and those that are are offended.  It was announced earlier this morning that Lemon will return to the air tomorrow, but having seen T.J. and Amy also briefly return to GMA3 when they were already in the process of exiting their show, there’s ample reason to believe that return is merely temporary and procedural.

As for Licht, well, he answers to Zas, who answers to Wall Street.  Wanna take odds how soon he’ll be joining Zucker as a former head of CNN?

For as inevitable as that outcome appears to be, one can’t help but feel a shred of sympathy for Licht.  One would have thought he knew a lemon when he saw it.  CNN’s issues of credibility and viability, particularly in as divided a landscape that they attempt to compete in, are massive.  His intentions were legitimate–fish where the fish are.   Except these fish stink and don’t appear likely to migrate to a septic tank like the one that CNN is right now.  As Greer’s article concluded:

Ratings at the network have hit an all-time low, and morale at CNN is also low and “no one feels safe” about their jobs, a source said.

“CNN is in big trouble. The network is in really bad shape and the format doesn’t work. They’re not going to continue paying Don all that money for a failing show,” the TV insider said.

Don Lemon apologized for his remarks.  Period.  Chanting for his cancellation as a result of that shows a remarkable lack of true understanding of what actually matters, and shame on anyone for being short-sighted enough to demand that.   But any expectation that diversity training will undo decades of impassioned belief is equally heinous.  Don Lemon is who he is.   If the reports of his behind-the-scenes interactions are true, that and that alone is a reason for his dismissal.

Like my ill-advised Chevy Malibu of years ago, CNN This Morning is a lemon whose problems go way beyond the Lemon that appears to be soon a part of its history. And that may indeed be the lemon that cannot be repaired.

Until next time…


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