86 Minutes With Chris Licht

Photo: Patrick McMullan

On the drizzly morning of May 17, Chris Licht sits in Control Room 3A at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, performing an unnatural act. As the executive producer of the buzzy MSNBC gabfest Morning Joe, Licht has occupied this space virtually every weekday for the past four years—but his customary position is in the front row, frantically riding herd over his co-hosts, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, and the show’s rotating ensemble cast of reporters, analysts, and multipurpose bloviators (including, very much in the last category, me). But today Licht is perched way in the rear, watching idly as his colleagues wrap up the last half-hour with no input from him. “It’s weird,” he says. “Like being in the back seat of your car when someone else is driving.”

The reason Licht is reclining here is known at this moment to those of us in the M.J. family but few others: He also happens to be residing in the departure lounge. Two days hence, CBS News will announce that Licht will soon become its new vice-president of programming; his last day at Morning Joe is 72 hours away. On its own, the move would be enough to provoke a swirl of emotions for the curly-haired, 39-year-old Licht, but it arrives alongside another milestone: the publication on May 24 of his first book, a brisk micro-memoir titled What I Learned When I Almost Died, about his hospitalization last year with, and recovery from, a mysterious brain hemorrhage.

For Licht, there is a bright line connecting his health scare and the decision to take his new gig at CBS. “It would have been really safe to stay—nothing was bad here,” he says. “But the first thing I said to Phil [Griffin, MSNBC’s president] when I came back to work was, ‘This is great, but I want to do bigger things.’ We’ve all been to funerals where people say, ‘He had so much more to do.’ That’s kind of how I felt.”

Downstairs in Scarborough’s office after that day’s show, he lauds Licht for a set of skills as crucial off the air as on it. “We had to kick down every door to make this show work; outside of Phil, who was with us, the rest of the bureaucracy here hated us,” Scarborough says. “Chris fought those battles and made it possible for us to take chances.”

“And he has such colorful language in the control room!” Brzezinski chimes in. “My daughter [who is 12] went in there for one segment with three other little girls. They came out saying, ‘Motherfucking bitch bite! Motherfucking bitch bite!’ I’m like, ‘What just happened?’ My daughter says Chris kept saying, ‘Motherfucking bitch bite!’ He was screaming at the top of his lungs.”

“They grow up fast in Westchester ­County—and morning-show control rooms,” Scarborough adds merrily. “The thing is, I don’t even know what that means.”

Back in his own office, Licht tells me that his brush with mortality has calmed him down—to a point. “I am just as intense as I was before and just as driven, but I do not stay angry at people,” he says. “I do not linger.”

The intensity and drive will be necessary in his new job, which will entail an ambitious effort to retool CBS’s perennially lagging news offerings. Licht argues that the recent appointments of 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager as the news division’s chairman and former Bloomberg News executive David Rhodes as its president are promising signs. “For the first time, there’s a willingness to change and blow things up with no sacred cows, and two people at the top who really can,” he says.

Licht’s first order of business will be to breathe new—or, really, any—life into the moribund The Early Show. “CBS didn’t hire me to re-create Morning Joe,” Licht says. “But they did hire me to bring the same sensibility, which is something that is smart and transparent, that isn’t slick and doesn’t play TV.” (Despite his new executive status, no one should be surprised if he winds up back in the control room on the caffeine-megadose shift.) “The No. 1 news show in America is 60 Minutes—so why can’t the people that watch 60 watch the other properties at CBS News? You can’t give me a compelling answer. Those people will find smart television.”

Yet if there’s one thing Licht has learned from his medical travails, it’s that even if people don’t find whatever he helps put on the tube, it won’t be the end of the world—not even his world. “If after a month, CBS said, ‘We’ve decided we don’t like you, you’re fired,’ and NBC’s like, ‘We told you so, go fuck yourself,’ I’d still have two amazing kids, an amazing wife, and my life, you know? I mean, I almost died. What could you possibly do to me?”

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86 Minutes With Chris Licht