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Hands-On Producer Learns Value of Letting Go

Chris Licht, a self-described former “maniac” producer, seems much more relaxed these days in his new office at the CBS Broadcast Center on New York’s West Side.

Not to say there isn’t plenty about his new job as VP of programming for CBS News to stress over. After all, the 39-year-old Licht has been tasked with rebuilding CBS’ struggling morning show, which has been perennially lagging in third place.

“It is a priority of the division, it’s a priority of actually everyone at CBS,” he says.

But after barely surviving a frightening brain hemorrhage in April 2010, Licht’s perspective on his life and career changed and he learned to stop obsessing over his BlackBerry and refocus his priorities—a transformation he recounts in his book, What I Learned When I Almost Died, which was published in May.

Besides learning to better appreciate his wife and two young sons, the experience gave Licht the courage to leave his job as executive producer of MSNBC’s Morning Joe—a show he helped create in 2007 and calls “the best job in TV”—to join CBS News.

“It just sort of negated from the equation the angst about taking a risk and leaving your comfort zone,” Licht says. “When you see an opportunity, you grab it, and that’s what I did. It could all go horribly bad here, but that’s OK because I have my family. And that’s a feeling I didn’t have before.”

The health scare also led Licht to make decisions based on his gut, making him a better producer, according to Morning Joe cohosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, in a way that should translate to his new role as a programming executive.

“You’re less worried about how that decision might be perceived, or who’s going to be pissed off, or covering your butt, or all of the ancillary things that go into decision-making,” Licht says. “The rap on a lot of executives is they make defensive decisions. I found I was able to make more proactive decisions.”

Only three months into his new job, Licht is starting by getting acclimated with the CBS news division and the people who work there, which he’s been doing by holding one-on-one meetings with everyone from production assistants to senior producers.

Next he will turn his attention to the product, specifically The Early Show, which despite an anchor shake-up last January is still performing below expectations. The network will be looking for Licht to contribute his inventive style, evidenced through Morning Joe, which first prompted CBS News President David Rhodes to try to hire Licht away while Rhodes was head of U.S. television at Bloomberg. “I was sure he could be a gamechanger then, and I’m glad he’s joined CBS now,” Rhodes says.

While Licht has drawn attention in the industry for his producing chops, as a child growing up in Fairfield County, Conn., he dreamed of being Tom Brokaw, and he used to film his own news show in the basement of his house. But his on-air ambitions faded early in his career, when he fell in love with producing while working at KNBC Los Angeles.

His first broadcast TV job was working as a writer on NBC’s O.J.Simpson: The Trial, a gig he basically talked himself into while working in the same building at KNBC. Licht’s work on the Simpson program got noticed and he moved up quickly in the KNBC newsroom, eventually becoming producer of the 11 p.m. news while still in his mid-20s.

“I took Chris on faith because he was so insistent that this was where his life was going, this was what he wanted to do; he was so enthusiastic, so when I had an opening, I gave him a chance,” says Jeff Kaufman, the former KNBC executive producer who hired Licht on O.J. Simpson: The Trial and the man whom Licht credits as an early mentor. “That was the best decision I ever made. He made me look good for the last 20 years for taking that chance on him.”

After spending a few years in San Francisco on NBC’s corporate transition team for the newly acquired KNTV, Licht moved to New York to be closer to his girlfriend at the time (now his wife, a control room producer for CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360). He joined MSNBC’s Scarborough Country as a senior producer, where he first got hooked up with the eponymous host; the pair would go on to create Morning Joe together.

Despite his new executive title, Licht is still a producer at heart. “I am most at home in a control room,” he says, pulling a headset from his desk drawer. That sensibility is refl ected in his TV viewing choices as well. He was most recently addicted to Showtime’s The Franchise, not only because he was a Giants fan when he lived in San Francisco, but because the quickturnaround episodes entertained him from a production standpoint.

And while Licht watches a lot of CBS News now, he still can’t miss Morning Joe from 6-7 a.m. every day before flipping over to The Early Show. He remains close with Scarborough and Brzezinski—adding fuel to speculation that Licht may eventually reunite with one or both at CBS—and admits it was hard for him at first to give up control of a show he cocreated. “For the first couple of weeks, you start yelling at the screen, like ‘Why would you do that?!’ but then it kind of fades away.”

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