CNN’s Don Lemon insisted Thursday he had not been demoted after the network announced he will move from primetime’s “Don Lemon Tonight” to an ensemble morning program later this year.
In the world of television news, a primetime program bearing the name of the host is considered the highest possible perch. On ABC and NBC, flagship morning shows might reign supreme, but in the world of cable, primetime has historically been king. Lemon addressed CNN’s audience when host Laura Coates evoked the shakeup during their handoff, and his tone was unmistakeably defensive.
“I was presented with an opportunity that I just can’t pass up, at this network, and we have a new boss who is a morning show [expert]. And he wants a morning show that will kick off the editorial direction of the network, every single day, and I am honored that he asked me to do it,” Lemon told viewers Thursday.
“For all those who are out there saying, ‘Oh, he moved me and without my –,’ he asked me and I said yes. I could have said no. This is my show, I have a contract for this show, I decided I would take him up on that and take this journey with him. This is not someone moving me,” Lemon continued. “I was not demoted. None of that. This is an opportunity. This is a promotion. This is an opportunity for me to create something around me and I get to work with two great ladies [Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins] who you know.”
He also denied he was going to be forced to “move to the right,” an implicit acknowledgment of his liberal views, and he said Twitter chatter to the contrary was “not real.”
Coates had his back, telling viewers that “no one dictates anything to Don Lemon.”
Indeed, CNN CEO Chris Licht has a reputation as a morning show authority after his work with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and “CBS This Morning,” but the decision to move Lemon off primetime was not seen as a promotion in many media circles.
“This is an extremely embarrassing demotion for Don Lemon, and likely a prelude to his termination. When this new morning show launches and flounders in the ratings, which it will, he’ll be the first to go. CNN had tried for years to fix its morning programming and Don Lemon is not the answer,” a longtime network morning show producer told Fox News Digital.
Lemon appeared to have taken notice of the reaction the announcement generated on social media, where the CNN host took heat from all sides.
Liberal former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann promoted his latest podcast with a tweet declaring “Chris Licht demotes Don Lemon to CNN’s wasteland.” In a rare instance in which conservative Media Research Center president Brent Bozell is on the same page as Olbermann, he tweeted that CNN is “hiding” Lemon on a “failed morning show.”
OutKick founder Clay Travis shared a video with his thoughts on the CNN shakeup.
“Don Lemon was demoted out of his primetime television show and he now is going to be on an early morning show. So, Don Lemon is going to move from a primetime CNN program that no one watched to an early-morning CNN program that no one will watch. Congratulations to him on the massive, massive, massive promotion,” Travis said.
“Don Lemon was demoted,” comedian Tim Young wrote, while conservative pundit Carmine Sabia added, “CNN host Don Lemon loses Primetime show, Morning show ‘New Day’ to be cancelled and Lemon moved to mornings as part of a host team. Major demotion for the propagandist.”
Lemon was still defending himself on Friday, when he tweeted, “This is why I’m moving to mornings,” to accompany video of his Thursday night comments.
Lemon will join CNN hosts Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins on the “re-imagined” morning show that will replace the long-struggling “New Day.” The move leaves CNN with another gaping hole in primetime, as “Cuomo Prime Time” still has not been replaced since its namesake host Chris Cuomo was fired last year.
From a viewership perspective, Lemon’s primetime program didn’t have much more success than the morning show that Licht pulled the plug on. “Don Lemon Tonight” has averaged 619,000 nightly viewers in 2022 to rank as the No. 41 cable news program despite its desirable time slot. The soon-to-be-replaced “New Day” averaged 414,000 daily viewers to rank No. 43 in cable news. Both programs trail dozens of Fox News and MSNBC offerings, including a variety of midday programs that historically don’t rate as well as morning or primetime shows.
CNN’s changes come as Licht, and his bosses at Warner Bros. Discovery, hope to restore CNN’s reputation as a nonpartisan news outlet after it dramatically shifted to the left during the Trump era. Chris Barron, a conservative communications specialist and frequent critic of CNN, doesn’t believe Lemon will help the network’s goal of emphasizing “news” over liberal opinion programming.
“Don Lemon’s move is shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. CNN won’t regain credibility by moving partisan hacks like Lemon from primetime to the morning,” Barron told Fox News Digital.
Outkick and Fox News share common ownership.