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…
Nigel: …the numbers all go to eleven. Look…right across the board.
Marty: Ahh…oh, I see….
Marty: …and most of these amps go up to ten….
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….
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.