Why CNN is Really Stuck This Time…

When the 2012 Q1 ratings came out for CNN and it was revealed that its new morning shows had hit greater than 10 year lows, I called it a crisis moment.

In ratings terms it’s not a necessarily disaster but in PR terms it is an unmitigated disaster. CNN will publicly make the case that this is an ongoing process and that the network is committed to both Early Start and Starting Point. There is some truth to this because CNN made a big public display by attaching VP and Managing Editor Mark Whitaker’s name so prominently to these launches so any admission of trouble would immediately be tracked back to Whitaker because these two shows, particularly Starting Point, were his projects.

But it’s still a PR disaster for CNN, long term commitment or not, precisely because nobody was expecting the numbers to be worse now than four months ago. And breaking a 10 year history barrier? You just can’t spin your way out of that. Media writers like nice neat pithy headlines that are easy to disseminate and nothing could be pithier or easier to disseminate than “CNN breaks 10 year low in the morning”.

I had thought that this would be as bad as it could get for CNN. Smashing through 10 year ratings low barriers doesn’t happen very often; it’s the exception and not the rule. Things couldn’t possibly get much worse.

So imagine my surprise to read about CNN’s primetime May ratings yesterday where not only did Prime smash through its own 10 year low barrier for May but both OutFront and Piers Morgan Tonight hit all time recorded lows in both Total Viewers and the Demo.

My mind immediately raced to an infamous scene from “Spinal Tap”

Nigel: This is a top to a, you know, what we use on stage, but it’s very…very special because if you can see…
Marty: Yeah…
Nigel: …the numbers all go to eleven. Look…right across the board.
Marty: Ahh…oh, I see….
Nigel: Eleven…eleven…eleven….
Marty: …and most of these amps go up to ten….
Nigel: Exactly.
Marty: Does that mean it’s…louder? Is it any louder?
Nigel: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most…most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here…all the way up…all the way up….
Marty: Yeah….
Nigel: …all the way up. You’re on ten on your guitar…where can you go from there? Where?
Marty: I don’t know….
Nigel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is if we need that extra…push over the cliff…you know what we do?
Marty: Put it up to eleven.
Nigel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.
Marty: Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top…number…and make that a little louder?
Nigel: …these go to eleven.

Instead of going one higher than anyone else could CNN was doing the exact opposite, it was going one lower than anyone else could; racing to the bottom…further down than in its recorded history.

Um…that’s not good.

Ok, everyone is down this year compared to last year. We’ve been reading about it over and over all year long. Today, The New York Times’ Brian Stelter wrote

Is a presidential election a turnoff to news viewers, even those who generally like to hear political opinions reflected in cable news shows?

In what seems an incongruous development, the month of May — in the middle of what is shaping up as a close presidential campaign — generated some of the worst recent ratings for cable news television.

That included the dominant leader in that category, Fox News. The ratings for some of its top programs declined to their lowest levels since the last presidential election year.

If you buy into Jack Shafer’s argument in Reuters, what we’re seeing is a course correction of sorts because cable news has peaked. One could take the peakage theory and further extrapolate that 2012 is more in line with where ratings should be for an election year (reflected by what FNC is doing in 2012 as per Stelter’s article) and the past few years’ higher numbers have been an unsustainable outlier. 2012 could be the year cable news ratings return to normal…the normal of 2008.

None of this should be of any comfort in Atlanta, however. FNC and MSNBC may be “returning to normal” in 2012 but they aren’t smashing decade low barriers and all time recorded lows the way CNN is this year so far. And this is an election year when the ratings for CNN should be higher than these ugly lows.

I’ve been arguing this point for a while now and I’m going to reiterate it here. Anderson Cooper’s syndicated show has hurt his CNN show. What sold people on Cooper in the first place was his reporting and compelling TV from out in the field in various parts of the world. And yet, since his syndicated show launched, those “road trips” where Cooper and his show are at their best, have been throttled back big time. How many times has he gone in the field in since his syndicated show began? Twice; once in Haiti and last month on the Syria border for a couple of days. Granted, primary season probably also restricted 360′s ability to hit the road but that doesn’t excuse the fall of 2011 when there were no primaries but there was Cooper’s syndicated program.

This is a big problem for CNN. Their signature show is dependent to a great extent upon the ability of their signature anchor to go around the world delivering compelling TV. That’s its and his brand after all. When he can’t do that, the show is hurt. And because CNN airs that show twice in primetime, CNN prime is twice dependent on that show to deliver the goods. And it can’t deliver the goods nearly as well now thanks to that syndicated show. Further complicating this is the fact that AC360′s repeat hour too often outrates its debut hour. The speculation has been that AC360 was moved to air live at 8 and repeat at 10pm in order to make life easier for Cooper because of the demands of his syndicated show. I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that it hasn’t helped CNN prime much to have the same show air twice and have the repeat too often outrate the debut.

I’m going to ignore Piers Morgan Tonight’s May crash and burn for the time being. Yes he did worse than Larry King ever did in recorded CNN history. But I continue to believe that Morgan is a worthy successor to King and can deliver the goods and has an extra dimension to him that King never had; some people love to hate him. I am still waiting for Morgan to stop holding back and really unleash himself on CNN’s air. He’s still playing small ball when he should be reaching more for the fences. I would like to see his show air live more often and rely less and less on taped and edited programming. Yes, it can take a while to get the interview going and tape gets you out of that problem and lets you present the “best of the best”. But being live forces you to go with the moment and adds the pressure to deliver right then and there because you’re without the net that tape provides. I think Morgan needs less net.

So, unless CNN is willing to drop one of the AC360 hours, probably the 8, I don’t see any show changes in primetime any time soon.

But CNN isn’t just stuck in prime, it’s stuck in the evening as well. Had this not been an election year, there almost certainly would have been show changes, severe show changes, in CNN’s early prime. John King, USA has consistently underperformed in multiple time slots since launch two years ago. The verdict is in but CNN has so far refused to read it. I believe the reason for this head in the sand approach is two part.

First of all it’s an election year and CNN has marked King as a key component of its political team. Nothing will disturb this team before the election. Absolutely nothing. The election is six months out. The home stretch. Team disruption would be extremely bad at this stage. Cancelling King’s show would be a sign of weakness leading up to the election and prove to be an unwanted distraction at this critical point in time. The second reason CNN has its head in the sand about King’s show has everything to do with the thorny issue of what does CNN do with King if it cancels his show and what does King do? If I was King, I’d bolt.

See the problem? CNN is stuck with King’s show because there’s an election six months out and CNN doesn’t want to risk losing King but really doesn’t have a plan B for him if it cancels his show.

And then there’s OutFront. There was considerable skepticism kibitzed amongst the media writers when CNN poached Erin Burnett from CNBC. There was even more skepticism kibitzed when CNN announced that Burnett’s show would air at 7pm as part of a radical wholesale overhaul of early prime and prime. At the time I wrote this

Erin Burnett’s show now has to deliver out of the gate. It cannot afford a grace period. The reason? It’s now the lead-in to AC360. If Burnett stumbles out of the gate…that affects 360.

360 needs all the help it can get at 8pm. This makes putting on an untested anchor in an unfamiliar scenario in a new show as the lead-in to your “must kick ass flagship show” at 8pm all the more puzzling. If you were looking to deliberately give 360 the worst possible start that you could, you’d be hard pressed to top putting on a newbie in a newbie format in a newbie show as the lead in. It’s the total antithesis to how you program in a highly contested timeslot.

It’s like building a house of cards. If one card is weak, it affects the ones above it. In this case there are two potentially weak cards here that could snowball and undermine 360. Not only does CNN have to worry about Burnett killing Cooper as a lead-in, it has to worry about the already under performing John King, USA killing Burnett as a lead in. If King drags down Burnett…Burnett could drag down Cooper…setting aside the argument about whether she might do that on her own.

In addition to the fact that it’s six months out from an election and Burnett’s part of the team covering it, the show is still under a year old. OutFront is not the must cancel as soon as possible train wreck that Parker/Spitzer was. CNN will give it considerable more time (they’ve kept King’s show on for two years after all and it hasn’t done jack in the ratings) but maybe not in the 7pm timeslot. But, as I said, no changes before the election.

And that’s why I say in my title that CNN is really stuck this time. The Election is going freeze almost everything the network might normally consider trying except possibly doing away with one of the 360 hours…that could still happen before the election. In early prime/primetime CNN will try tweaking formats and shuffling producers, executives, and writers…anything short of show cancellation and/or talent dropping. That will have to wait until after November. Possibly even 2013. I just don’t see radical change on the horizon before then even though with ratings headlines like what we’ve seen so far, radical change is clearly in order.

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22 Responses to “Why CNN is Really Stuck This Time…”

  1. Well, they still have the best political team on television, the Magic Wall, and the Weebiles.

  2. libertyandjustice Says:

    Summary, everything is screwed up except the management.

  3. ^ Ha, I think the summary is they are all screwed up including the management!

  4. savefarris Says:

    An encapsulation of everything wrong in Atlanta right now: CNN scooped on story about their own contributor

    http://www.nationalreview.com/campaign-spot/301335/fox-news-covers-swatting-harassment-phenomenon

  5. Great analysis, Spud! CNN really is in a quandry right now. I totally agree – Anderson’s daytime misadventure is hurting AC360. I have thought AC360 has been declining for a while – many people seem to think he is just phoning it in. He lacks passion for news and has spent way too much time chasing celebrity.

    I am disappointed to hear that CNN isn’t going to make any changes before the election but I suppose you are right that it looks worse to make political team changes now. The house of cards analogy is right. When you look at the ratings for the last few months, King & Burnett are battling each other for the bottom in terms of viewership between Blitzer and Cooper. I can’t say Burnett’s ratings are entirely King’s fault because she is frequently the nadir of ratings in the early evening. Plus, she faceplanted out of the gate all by herself. Truth is, Burnett & King together are killing Cooper at 8pm in addition to the damage he has done to himself.

    I like John King but his show is not working out. I would like to see him doing political segments across CNN shows but I guess that would be a step down for him. I wouldn’t blame him for leaving CNN but I would be sad to see him go.

    Burnett, the “new” Cooper, and Morgan have become an unmitigated cable news ratings disaster. Yet for better or worse, they are the face of CNN in an election year. Thankfully, Blitzer and King are around to help for political coverage. What does it say when 2 out of the 3 primetime anchors (Morgan and Burnett) are completely incapable of moderating a debate or anchoring big election coverage? And as for handling big breaking news…? Yeah, they can’t do that either. Yes, they have held on to JohnKingUSA for too long and perhaps they will do the same for OutFront but with the ratings declining this fast can they afford to?

    Early Start and Starting Point still have time to work out some issues. At least CNN is trying to address those problems now. I could see Banfield moving up into a higher profile show. Starting Point has some potential but the panel of pundits is horrible and totally off-putting.

    It is a real shame that the election is freezing everything because CNN needs to make sweeping wholesale changes. Until then, ratings decline and more importantly, their brand suffers. Once people get in the habit of tuning in elsewhere, how are you gonna bring them back?

  6. Da_King Says:

    CNN Daytime needs more hard news and less fluff, and also format changes can be addressed here…they have more commercial breaks than local channel newscasts….considering CNN has two streams of revenue and the local channels to an extent have one!

  7. donnieboston Says:

    Overall it may be the peakage issue, it may be something else, but I think the 7pm hour disaster is Burnett’s fault. John King rarely went below 100k in that slot. Nevertheless, his show is pretty weak and it was fair to expect it could only head south in the 6pm slot, which has always been challenging for CNN (I’m guessing because of network news at 6.30) and even Blitzer had demo numbers slipping below 100k at least once a week on a regular basis. Burnett’s personality is what’s driving me away from CNN at 7. Can’t find the words to explain what exactly bothers me, but the girl just doesn’t fit there.

    Cooper’s show is more or less copy/pasted each and every night. Not necessarily in this order, but it begins with daily campaign nonsense story followed by regular panel discussion, continues with YouTube videos from Syria including discussion with Fouad Ajami and John McCain, then there’s a bizarre crime story featuring resident legal panel and it all ends with Cooper giggling or talking about how he giggled last night. And yes, there’s Isha Sesay cracking some jokes after her newsless bullettin ends. In a single word – boring.

  8. Spud you are ignoring the elephant (and the donkey) in the room. FNC & MSNBC are POV/opinion 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and CNN is still trying to play it straight. Changing hosts and playing with sets, gadgets and formats are not going to change the fact that POV/opinion sells much better than straight – except for major news events.

    POV/opinion is the porn of cable news; everyone complains about it but everyone watches it too. Until CNN somehow figures out how to do POV/opinion it will continue its slide into irrelevance.

  9. There goes Fritz again, making sense. I think Fritz2 fills in for 3 now and then.

  10. I fervently believe that any time you come up with a news/porn analogy, you can’t help but be #winning.

  11. erich500 Says:

    Laura said it better (and earlier): CNN is still as big as Norma Desmond, it’s the news got small. People are watching opinion more than they are watching facts.

    CNN somehow has to figure out how to make the news bigger. That means not telling us what we already know or can learn from elsewhere. It means they somehow need to inform us of things that we don’t know or can’t learn elsewhere.

    Longer pieces, more investigative reporting, a sort of The New Yorker magazine for cable. But that’s hard to do in a faster news cycle. Stories get washed away more quickly.

    Yeah, I don’t know what the heck they can do either.

  12. erich500 Says:

    When the news is “big”, CNN dominates. They can throw resources at a story that the POV networks simply can’t.

    Like Krugman saying we need a war to rescue the economy, CNN needs a good war to generate ratings.

    I’m tongue in cheek there; whether Krugman is serious depends on which side of the aisle you sit.

  13. “CNN somehow has to figure out how to make the news bigger. That means not telling us what we already know or can learn from elsewhere. It means they somehow need to inform us of things that we don’t know or can’t learn elsewhere.

    Longer pieces, more investigative reporting, a sort of The New Yorker magazine for cable. But that’s hard to do in a faster news cycle. Stories get washed away more quickly.”

    ^^ That’s a recipe for a higher quality cable news net but not higher ratings or at least ratings that can compete with POV/opinion.

    The New Yorker is a great high quality magazine. It doesn’t sell like Hustler.

  14. “The New Yorker is a great high quality magazine. It doesn’t sell like Hustler.”

    ^^ Actually I’m wrong; the New Yorker sells more than Hustler. I guess I should have used another soft pron example like ‘People Magazine’ ;-)

  15. ^ Yes, I was thinking along the lines of The Atlantic and the Financial Times. It would be a recipe for a higher quality network but it will still never compete with FNC in terms of ratings. The problem is, at CNN the quality is declining and the ratings are bad. Finding a way to incorporate multiple POV (NOT the view the nowhere) along with investigative, in-depth reporting like PBS Frontline or ProPublica would improve the ratings significantly. At least then they would have a product and brand to be proud of. That doesn’t seem to be the case now (except perhaps CNNI).

    Laura is right, in many ways the news has gotten smaller, particularly politics. But does CNN have to cater to the lowest common denominator? I expect more.

  16. ^^ “the New Yorker sells more than Hustler.”

    See, there is hope ;)

    Doesn’t Turner also own People Mag along with CNN? Just sayin’

  17. BTW, I think Fareed Zakaria is a good example. He discusses the big issues but doesn’t shy away from point of view. All sides are represented on his show – typically in a nuanced, thoughtful way.

  18. Fareed Zakaria has a great show, but his POV is almost always dealing with foreign affairs questions not US political debate. You won’t see him choose sides between the POTUS and Romney at least not directly. The problem is I don’t think he is getting the ratings to compete with FNC and MSNBC.

  19. danoregon Says:

    If I had one bit of advice for CNN – work on the overall concept and content, and not the name you attach to the show. They seem to hire people for shows, then bring in an EP to figure out what to do with the talent. They would be much better off developing their own people instead of importing them from elsewhere. Sure, John King flopped, but Morgan, Campbell Brown, Burnett, Spitzer, Aaron Brown….Brooke Baldwin is the last person I can think of CNN developing.

  20. To prosper via ratings you have to give the desired audience what they want, not what you think they need.

    Quality and lofty standards depends on a divorce from ratings being the end goal. PBS still provides impressive quality of news, documentaries, and entertainment. Similar attempts of cable channels have degenerated as ratings increased with vaudeville replacing opera.

  21. Martin Bashir hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about. Liberals don’t give a damn about helping the economy now or ever. Their sole focus continues to be improving their own lot through the spending of other people’s money and they seem perfectly willing to let the country sink to keep that spigot flowing. They don’t care that it’s always going to be the average working American who’ll end up footing most of the the bill, and they’ve gotten pretty good at convincing the more gullible idiots that it’s the “wealthy” who aren’t paying enough.

    It’s a POV programme on a POV cable channel. The only foul is in having anyone from NBC News appear on it. Like a see-saw, if their presence raises the credibility of MSNBC it simultaneously lowers NBC’s.

  22. [...] I have to admit, I got it wrong. I didn’t think CNN had the intestinal fortitude to cancel John King, USA before the election. The New York [...]

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