How to Fix CNN?

You simply must read Michael Calderone’s excellent CNN survey in Politico. It’s chock full of interesting ideas. It’s also chock full of some either not good or unrealistic ideas but that illustrates the problem: there’s no consensus on what to do.

I don’t like this being put in the terms of CNN must overhaul or it will die. I think it’s a false choice. It won’t die. The long term numbers bear this out in Total Day. Taking the numbers I cited last night from July 1997 and comparing them to last Quarter we see CNN, long term, Total Day may be either slowly rising or stagnating, but it’s not dying…

July 1997 Total Day – 408,000 P2+
2010 Q1 Total Day – 507,000 P2+

Primetime is another matter, long term it’s gone down in Total Viewers

July 1997 Primetime – 869,000 P2+
2010 Q1 Primetime – 656,000 P2+

I found the primetime numbers by looking at MSNBC’s release. I should have looked at this last night when writing up my piece on Jon Klein but I didn’t. Consequently I have to change my grade on Issue 4 from last night’s piece from “Incomplete” to “F” because of viewership erosion in primetime even though long term CNN has increased viewers in Total Day. Losing 200,000 average Total Viewers from 12 years ago is bad, no matter how you try to parse it.

I think Mediaite’s Rachel Sklar summed it up pretty well…

Prime-time, she noted, is only a “piece of the puzzle” with the demo — the prized age 25-54 demographic — even smaller.

“Stop for a moment and think about what CNN stands for. It feels pretty important right now,” Sklar said. “So, yes, tinker with the execution, by all means — that’s clearly broken, and there are ways to fix it. But the central mission matters, and I still truly believe there’s a market for it.”

Aaron Brown, now the Walter Cronkite professor of journalism at Arizona State University, makes the point that while CNN is taking heat for its prime-time ratings, the network is still a “highly profitable business” overall.

“What they do have to do is endure the fact that each month or week or year, there are going to be stories about how they get their asses kicked,” Brown said. “But as a business, they are doing just fine.”

The one thing I would add, which I touched on yesterday, is that CNN needs to stop with the PR ratings ad war that pits its primetime “news” programs against the competition’s “non-news” programs because it just continues to frame the debate in a way that hurts CNN long term. It’s one thing for the other guys to kick CNN for being down in the ratings, even though what the other guys are doing isn’t what CNN wants to do. CNN can’t control that. It’s another thing for CNN to hand them the boots to do so by piping up every time there’s a ratings spike that pushes them over a competitor’s particular hour, without putting the spike into context, which only serves to re-enforce the idea that they’re competing for the same viewers when they really aren’t.

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17 Responses to “How to Fix CNN?”

  1. Another interesting analysis.
    There are actually some really interesting ideas put forth in the article. It is also good to see almost all want CNN to stay out of opinion and keep doing straight news.
    If they can’t put Larry King out to pasture then move him to HLN with the other entertainment/crime shows.
    I liked the idea of a hour long news hour maybe modeled on the PBS format. They could even do a Shields & Brooks thing with maybe Paul Begala & Ed Rollins the only two CNN political analysis (except David Gergen) that can debate without spouting only talking points.
    I don’t think bringing back Crossfire or The Capital Gang is the answer.
    I would not base the network on Cooper as I think he will be gone in a year or so; but rather get people who can discuss issues in more than quips and sound bites. Fareed Zakaria may not garner huge ratings but has a loyal and intelligent audience.
    A show like Frontline that does in depth looks at subjects that are current would also work for me. The specials they do now are more about the hosts, i.e. Soledad O’Brian or Anderson Cooper. An anonymous voice-over puts the emphasis on the story.
    The one thing no one discussed was people using the Internet as there main source of news. Although I am an avid cable news viewer I still get much of my information from the Net. This affects CNN much more than FNC or MSNBC as they are now more news-entertainment and I watch them now for mostly for political tinged entertainment

  2. harry1420 Says:

    is cnn broke? so cnn is different and its ratings aren’t so good… but should cnn change to be like all the others?!? Will copying the others gain eyeballs? probably not! fox has its loyal audience…and cnn does too. CNN is broken only to the people that are use to all the crap on fox. You never get ahead in ANY kind of business trying to copy someone else!

  3. starbroker Says:

    One can’t just compare 1997 with 2010 and not point out the major difference!

    Here’s the actual facts concerning 1997. CNN was available in only 70 million households at that time.

    Compare that today with ranges from 95-99 million homes. But while CNN has picked up around 30 million homes, they’ve lost a whopping 1/4 of their audience in prime time. You pick up 42% more households but you lose 25% of your audience.

    I still love seeing the people say CNN should do “straight news”. CNN has never done straight news. They’ve always been left wing heavily biased news. That’s why there was such a need for a network like FNC. And that’s why FNC was able to kick its @ss and send it reeling.

  4. Enjoy that fantasy world, Star. Another thing entered a lot more homes in the last 13 years: the internet. Not to mention longer work hours, Wii, Netflix and DVRs.

    And your fantasy about CNN being left wing is ludicrous. I suppose this comes from the same mind that finds FNC fair and balanced.

  5. starbroker Says:

    Well since DVR data is included in Live + that really doesn’t matter. Netflix not much different that people grabbing a video at blockbuster on the way home. Wii. Golly, nobody was playing video games back then!

    Why don’t you use the Atari 5200 argument against CNN in the early 80’s!

    And CNN has always skewed heavily left. From the Ted Turner days to today. It’s always been a left wing organization. Hasn’t changed. CNN is the group that sold out the Iraqi people to keep a bureau in Iraq. And of course while FNC has a viewership that pretty closely mirrors the electorate at large, CNN skewes heavily Democrat. Like MSNBC.

    But nice to see you try and excuse a 42% overall potential audience and yet 25% decline. It couldn’t possibly be CNN is just not worth watching. =)

  6. Au contrare, Star, I think CNN is crap, but you’re disregarding an overall change in the viewing landscape. Internet and videogame usage is much more widespread now than it was then; and I know people who rely almost solely on Netflix for their TV viewing, which certainly wasn’t the case when you had to go to the video store to get a movie.

    What I meant by DVR use is that many people are catching up to previosly recorded shows instead of watching whatever is currently on, another intrusion on cable news viewership.

  7. starbroker Says:

    Good thing FNC can compete with that mean old internet and Netflix.

    What was the story the other day?

    Q1 2010 Ratings: Dominant Fox News Has Best Quarter in Network History

  8. Breath, wasting..

  9. So Star can we put you in the camp that says CNN should hire a bunch of right wing hosts and copy FNC in the hope they can pick up a few more ratings points?. Who would you hire for on air talent and to replace Klein?

  10. If the internet, DVRs and video games have had such a detrimental effect on CNN’s ratings, why haven’t they had the same effect on FNC?

    Unlike CNN, FNC makes a clear delineation between their news and opinion shows and hosts/anchors. Also, FNC doesn’t have a seething contempt for the U.S.A.

  11. IMO because the FNC audience is more likely to get its news from the more traditional source; TV. The FNC viewership is older and does not come from the traditional cable news audience but rather the talk radio audience and former conservative newspaper readers.
    For the most part CNN has has not grown its viewership because CNN viewers left to watch FNC (or MSNBC for that matter) but for other reasons. One of the main ones was the growth of the Internet as a news source. Some viewers did switch for ideological reasons but if CNN was as liberal as you contend then therir audience would be liberal and would be more likely to switch to MSNBC.
    I’ll let those who put forward DVR’s & video games as a factor discuss that aspect.

  12. tinafromtampa Says:

    CNN has several problems, imho. Number one, they have no identity. Their newest ads are a combination of MSNBC and FNC. Claiming their are “straight down the middle” (aka fair and balanced) and CNN=politics (aka the place for politics).

    Anderson Cooper stammers so much he is very difficult to watch. His “teabagging” comment really hurt him. Campbell’s personal and vicious attack on Gov Palin right after she was announced as the VP candidate will never be forgotten (at least by me). LKL is boring on a good day. I haven’t seen John King’s new show yet so I won’t comment on that.

    Fact checking SNL skits and not outright firing Susan Roesgyn immediately after her debacle was not a smart move.

    Rick Sanchez and Roland Martin do not help the network at all.

    CNN’s claims of doing “real journalism” show they are in complete denial of their problems.

  13. So Tina, with whom exactly would you replace Cooper, King, Campbell, Martin, & Sanchez? There must be some talent available that you feel would be less biased.

  14. tinafromtampa Says:
    April 1, 2010 at 6:21 am

    CNN has several problems, imho. Number one, they have no identity. Their newest ads are a combination of MSNBC and FNC. Claiming their are “straight down the middle” (aka fair and balanced) and CNN=politics (aka the place for politics).

    I think the title of John King’s program “John King’s USA” is a way of branding CNN as an American cable news network. Rick’s List could evolve. I can’t take Campbell Brown’s voice – I don’t know what it is but remember when that woman complained that Mary Hart on Entertainment Tonight’s voice would give her seizures? Well Brown’s voice doesn’t give me seizures but it’s shrill and I have stopped trying to watch her.

    I can think of a slogan for CNN to go with straight down the middle…We Report – You Provide Your Own Bias LOL!

  15. libertyandjustice Says:

    1st let me say that I agree that FN is right of center but it’s popular because it has become a balance for almost everywhere else on cable and network TV that is left of center.

    IMO, the concept of straight news then followed by editorials(clearly marked) from multiple ideologies is very appealing. The problem at CNN is they don’t seem to have a clue of what straight news is. Or else they are fooling themselves. The brand represents the news from the left’s perspective and I believe viewer surveys would prove that point. If they were to follow the Candy Crowley model (network wide) of a fair and balanced reporting they would not have the perception of left wing bias. However it would time to overcome long ingrained perceptions.

    People like Sanjay Gupta, Dana Bash, Fareed Zakaria, Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Campbell Brown, and most of their daytime reporters wear their Democrat party affiliation on their sleeves. Over the years Bob Franken did tremendous damage CNN’s reputation for objectivity. He was scornful to the conservative point of view (like Harwood on CNBC) . The point is, straight reporting should be dispassionate and not take sides. They should do their best to make the best arguments for both sides and then let the viewer decide. Editorials are fine, but they should be clearly called that and be from both sides in equal measure. Does anyone think CNN does this? If so I have some nice farm land in FL I’d like to sell you.

  16. BW, Star, I apparently wasn’t clear enough. The other thing that changed significantly since 1997 is the creation and rise of Fox News, which started in late ’96. My comments are about the many factors that add to CNN’s ratings problems, FNC chief among them. The answer to the question, “why hasn’t the internet, DVRs and Netflix affected Fox’s ratings more” is…who knows how much it has? They rose at the same time.

  17. testing

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