Friday, June 29, 2012

CNN: "The Newsroom"

CNN's embarrassing mistake on Thursday of declaring the U.S. Supreme Court overturned President Barack Obama's health care law was unforgivable.  The rush to be first prevailed over the need to be right for the desperate and ratings challenged CNN.  The incident was also a black eye for all television news.

The Newsroom, which premiered Sunday on HBO, was an overly dramatized attempt to decry the current state of the television news business. The program, which was filled with smart dialogue, internal conflict and self-righteousness, was a bit misleading about what happens behind the scenes at a cable news network.

Nonetheless, Aaron Sorkin should be praised for raising some important questions about television news. However, on Wednesday's CBS This Morning, Sorkin said, "News shows should be exempt from having to deliver ratings." Really? If there were no news ratings how would media companies pay their news gathering expenses?

Global news organizations, such as ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox, each cost several hundred million dollars to operate per year. For example, the Fox News Channel invests around $700 million annually, surpassing CNN for the first time in 2010. CNN has about 46 news bureaus worldwide, while Fox News has fewer than 20.

The idea that network news divisions were once allowed to be money-losing operations is not really true. No matter, today there is no way media companies can cover the massive costs of operating a quality and highly competitive global news organization by allocating funds from their other divisions. And why should they since the news business is a big business?

CNN and HLN (Headline News) combined make about $600 million in annual profits. The Fox News Channel makes more than $800 million in profits per year, and MSNBC about $200 million. The cable news companies benefit from two streams of revenue, advertising dollars and subscription fees. Fox News receives slightly more than CNN in advertising revenue per thousand viewers (CPM), but enjoys a huge advantage over CNN in monthly revenue per subscriber. Broadcast news organizations, such as CBS and ABC, are most heavily reliant on just advertising dollars.

In all cases news organizations are heavily dependent on ratings. Advertisers pay to have their commercials aired on newscasts based on how many viewers their ads reach. The higher the ratings the more a network can charge for its commercials. And if there is great demand for a cable news channel the subscription fees are likely to be affected.

In a report titled "The State of the News Media 2012" released three months ago, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism highlighted the strength of the cable news business model. "One reason for the vigor is that the business model of cable news -- in which the cable channels receive half their revenue from fees bundled into monthly cable subscriptions from customers and half from advertising -- has proved over time to be remarkably resilient," the report said, "even as other sectors of the news industry continue to search for sustainable revenue streams."

But total cable news audience growth has pretty much flattened out. The news audience is increasingly more reliant on the Internet and mobile devices for information. Facebook and Twitter are impacting news coverage. And, to reinforce one of Sorkin's points, cable news programming often devolves into mindless chatter, hackneyed talking points and senseless spin. The topics are frequently predictable, the content is repetitive and news stories are often over-hyped.

NYU professor Jay Rosen wrote last year about his frustration with CNN:
"Too often, on-air hosts for the network will let someone from one side of a dispute describe the world their way, then let the other side describe the world their way, and when the two worlds, so described, turn out to be incommensurate or even polar opposites, what happens? CNN leaves it there. Viewers are left stranded and helpless. The network appears to inform them that there is no truth, only partisan bull. Is that real journalism?"
While all three of the cable news networks are facing ratings challenges, CNN has fallen and apparently it can't get up. Fox News has cornered the truly devoted conservative viewers, while MSNBC appeals to the liberals. That leaves CNN more or less in the middle trying to be all things to everybody in order to hang on to their loyal following. They seem to have lost their identity. Their programming strategy appears ad hoc, and their day-to-day production is uneven. CNN has one star, Anderson Cooper, but he is being misused. In fact, CNN only does well in the ratings when there is breaking news, but recently Fox News has been winning this category too.

Last month Turner Broadcasting President and CEO Phil Kent described some of CNN's problems as "self inflicted." CNN reports to Kent, so it was particularly noteworthy when he said, "We haven't put the best shows on the air." That's for sure, and nothing erodes viewer loyalty more quickly than poorly produced shows.

CNN can improve their current ratings performance just by increasing its original reporting, improving its writing and story-telling, focusing on more relevant stories and helping viewers understand why they should care about the issues it highlights. It can improve ratings by pursuing impactful investigative reports, challenging talking points and spin during newsmaker interviews, replacing some of its overused contributors, doing a better job of designing and executing programs, providing better teases, intros and tags, adding extra value in every report and using some imagination. These steps will give viewers more of a reason to watch CNN for longer periods of time at a sitting, and reason to return again more frequently each week.

At the same time CNN should think about a longer-term strategy. What new approach can it take to ensure its viability in the rapidly changing media landscape over the long haul? The times they are a changing.

Aaron Sorkin is a bold creator and a brilliant storyteller who produces with swagger and purpose, and casts his productions with strong and powerful talent. CNN is a fabulous news organization with many wonderful professionals. Perhaps there is a message in The Newsroom for CNN afterall.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Nora Ephron: RIP

Nora Ephron was a remarkable woman of great energy, intelligence and talent.  She was a gifted writer and story-teller.  I was fortunate to know her and spend time with her.  I once was her guest on the set of "Sleepless in Seattle" and watched her work her magic as director.  It was an amazing experience.  But so was every moment with Nora.  Thank you Nora!  My prayers for her soul, and for Nick Pileggi, her husband, and children.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Zoe in Thailand

In one of the most exciting adventures of her life, our daughter Zoe is off to Thailand for a month. She is traveling with nine other students, heretofore unknown to her, as part of the Overland field studies program. She is not allowed to have an iPhone, iPod, iPad or any other form of electronics. ET will not be able to phone home.

Overland group arrives at Bangkok airport Sunday, June 25.  Zoe Peyronnin 5th from left in back row.

Zoe begins her remarkable journey in Bangkok, where she and her group are taught some of the local culture and language.  Bangkok is a bustling and energetic city which has many amazing sites and smells.

The group will head north to Chiang Mai, a top eco-tourism spot which is on the Burmese border.  Here she will care for elephants as part of a service program.   She will also learn about Thai culinary herbs and spices, tour a local markets and take cooking classes.  

A few days later the group will visit Sukhothai in north central Thailand.  This was Thailand's first capital and flourished in the 13th century--the "golden age" of Thai civilization.  Sukhothai, which means rising of happiness, has lots of historic ruins in the most classic of Thai style.

Zoe and her group then head to southern Thailand.  One stop will be Krabi, about 600 miles south of Bangkok.   The town sits on a river amidst dense mangroves, and north of town are the twin limestone massifs of Khao Khanap Nam that emerge from the water like breaching whales. The wonderful people are mainly Taoist-Confucianism and Muslim.

This trip will have an enormous impact on her life.  It is the longest period of time she has been away from home.   She will be traveling in a country 9-thousand miles away from her home that has a rich and culture and heritage.  More than 70 million people make up the diverse population of Thailand.   And she will make new friendships that will last a lifetime.

Overland group in Bangkok, Zoe is third from the left.
Still, it takes courage for a sixteen year old girl to leave the comfort and security of home for the unknown.  She has packed several items that are dearest to her, as well as a camera.  Zoe is an aspiring photographer and Thailand will be a spectacular place in which to shoot pictures.

Stay tuned to this space for periodic updates and a complete report upon Zoe's return! 

Monday, June 18, 2012

England: Periods of Brightness

It is a wonderful time to be in London. The weather has been spot on, rainy and cool! Oh, and with "periods of brightness," as the weathercasters say on the telly.

The same can be said for the English economy, which is stuck in a double dip recession and is heavily dependent on Europe sorting out the Euro crisis. Thank goodness for the European Cup 2012, which has provided a wonderful diversion from the mundane day-to-day gloom. England is off to a good start too, having tied France 1-1 and beaten the always-difficult Sweden team 3-2.

This visit found our family at Kensington Palace, a home to the royal family for decades. The palace staff is excited because Kate and William, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, will be moving in soon. The palace houses a large exhibition in honor of William's mother Princess Diana, who lived at the palace. This and other parts of the structure are open to the public. The Kensington Palace museum is a hidden treasure that goes unnoticed by many tourists.

Walking through the various palace rooms one is struck by the opulence and splendor. One senses a ghostly presence of elegantly dressed guests roaming through the marble staircases and gilded halls flowing toward the drawing room. The women were each wearing large hooped skirts; a petticoat that stood rounded like a bell, a tight-laced bodice, and carried a fan. There was a fan language. If she touched her right cheek with the closed fan, she was saying yes. If she touched the left cheek, it was no.

The men glided through the halls wearing fully skirted coats with large cuffs. Each wore a back satin tie to his wig, which wound around his neck and tied in a bow brooched with a solitaire. He would be attuned to the fan signals of the ladies.

Guests may have passed through the King's Gallery as they worked their way toward the drawing room on the second floor overlooking the Kensington Gardens. There the King and Queen greeted members of the royal court, dignitaries, members of the government and important visitors. No one would leave the crowded room, perhaps as many as 300 persons, until the royals departed. This made entering difficult for latecomers or the timid.

On our visit a palace guide reported there were no bathroom breaks. Of course, there were no bathrooms in the palace. But the rule was no one could leave the room while the royals were present. So if one of the finely dressed women had to relieve herself, a staff member would hand her a small pot that she would discreetly put between her legs under her skirt. And while continuing on with her conversation, she would fill the pot and hand it back to the staff member.

Conversely, when the men had an urge they would walk to the corner of the room and step behind a sheet where they would relieve their urge. Our guide happily pointed out that this was also how the matter was handled at the Versailles Palace outside Paris. He added that a counterpart at Versailles told him that an odor of urine was still present on a hot summer day. Not so at Kensington as the wood floors had been replaced.

Our guide regaled us with the story of Sir Robert Walpole, considered England's first prime minister. King George I, the first Hanoverian sovereign, could speak no English and Walpole did not speak German. They compromised on Latin, which both could speak. The guide said that Walpole observed the important matters of the kingdom were carried out in "very bad Latin." Walpole almost lost his job when George II became king but he survived.

According to reports Walpole made some very harsh comments in the drawing room about Queen Caroline, calling her a "fat bitch." It appears Walpole denied making the remark. But Queen Caroline had heard about the remark, though confrontation was not the preferred tactic of the royal court. As word reached Walpole that the queen had heard his comment, he quickly arranged to increase the queen's expense allowance. Queen Caroline sent Walpole word that "the fat bitch had forgiven him."

So in between the Queen's Jubilee and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England offers many delightful and interesting options for visitors. And remember, the Kensington Palace is a hidden treasure, indeed!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

CNN Struggles

"The news is the star," was the driving vision of founder Ted Turner when he created CNN in 1980.  And that was especially true for a fledgling 24-hour cable news channel that had no competition.  But now that news has become largely a commodity that is available instantly and distributed on the Internet, mobile devices, cable news channels, broadcast television and radio, CNN is struggling for viewers.  

Unless there is a major news event, most people are not heavy news consumers.   Those who do regularly watch news tend to be older and very passionate about issues affecting this country.  For instance, on a typical weekday about 5 million people watch cable news at 8pm.  That means about 305 million Americans are doing something else.

Cable news ratings can go up if viewers increase the amount of minutes they watch a cable news program, or they increase the number of nights they tune in each week.  A typical CNN viewer is likely to watch a program for only a few minutes, usually at the top of each hour.  Of course, many potential CNN viewers don't even tune in if there is no major breaking news to check on. 

On the other hand, Fox News has created program franchises around well-known commentators, many of whom have had successful talk radio careers.  Fox News viewers, who are most passionate about their politics, tend to be heavy viewers.  They watch Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity for more minutes each hour, and more frequently each week than typical news consumers.  Even when there is no major news, Fox News viewers tune in because the star is the news.  To a lesser extent, MSNBC benefits from a passionate audience that tunes in to hear liberals Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell and Ed Shultz. 

However, both of these networks build interesting programs around their stars.  The content is thoughtfully shaped, and the programs are well produced, to keep the viewers engaged to the end and drive them on to the following program.  Program flow between 5pm and 11pm is very important factor.  Cable news networks like to build their viewership and deliver ever-increasing numbers to the next time slot.  Prime time is the most valuable real estate for advertisers and programmers.  That's where the real money is.

When major news breaks out, a large number of viewers still tune first to CNN.  They have a global organization that consistently provides great breaking news coverage.  But major news breaks out only a few days a year, and Fox News and MSNBC are cutting into CNN's advantage.  Adding to the rating's challenge, CNN has too frequently also shuffled talent and programs, to no avail.  CNN's cable fees and advertising revenue have held up to some extent because CNN is bundled with other Time Warner properties, but there is heavy downward pressure.  For CNN, this has been an "annus horribilis."

CNN has fallen and they can't get up.  Worse, this just in, they have hired Chef Anthony Bourdain to do a weekend show.  Huh?  And there is word that CNN will increase its international news.  Noble, but the problem is that, as important as it can be, regretfully most international news fails to attract viewers.  Of course, viewers will watch the Arab Spring, the Tiananmen Square student uprising, the Iraq War or the senseless slaughter of Syrian children for a few days.  But even loyal news viewers are more likely to watch news that directly affects them. 

When it comes to revenue, morning joins prime time as the most important time periods for cable.  Daytime and weekends are much less important.  So programmers focus resources and key personnel around these time periods. CNN has many fine journalists in their employ.  But many are miscast or not used properly. 

Soledad O'Brien now anchors the latest version of CNN's morning show.  O'Brien is a smart, experienced anchor who happens to be extremely nice.  But in her new program she has apparently been coached to be more confrontational and aggressive.  Consequently, the program is very hard to watch.  Anderson Cooper is the biggest star CNN has, but he is being mismanaged.  Cooper is a terrific journalist who is great broadcasting live from the frontlines of breaking news.  But his impact has been diluted because his CNN program is rerun an hour after its first airing.  What works best are his hard-hitting investigative pieces.   What works worst is the fact that he is anchoring poorly produced afternoon talk show that undermines what is best about Cooper.  

John King and Wolf Blitzer are both great reporters, but neither is a strong anchor.  And even they are dragged down by weak program production, a problem for most CNN programs.  Their shows fail to grab viewers at the top and drive them through the full hour.  The openings are weak, the teases are indifferent, and content is too frequently repeated.  Often any sense of urgency feels manufactured and hyped throughout, making almost anything "Breaking News." 

Experts or commentators are paired in mindless "he said-she said" debates, to quote NYU professor Jay Rosen.  Last year Rosen wrote, "But too often, on-air hosts for the network will let someone from one side of a dispute describe the world their way, then let the other side describe the world their way, and when the two worlds, so described, turn out to be incommensurate or even polar opposites, what happens?… CNN leaves it there. Viewers are left stranded and helpless. The network appears to inform them that there is no truth, only partisan bull. Is that real journalism?" 

These might be some of the problems that Turner Broadcasting President and CEO Phil Kent recently called, "self inflicted."  Last month he admitted, "We haven't put the best shows on the air."  That's for sure, and nothing erodes viewer loyalty more quickly than consistently poor shows.  No matter, given CNN's mission to play the news right down the middle, it will be impossible for them to catch up with Fox News whatever steps they take.    But CNN can regain some of its viewers with more original reporting, better writing and story-telling, more relevant stories, faster pacing, impactful investigative reports, interviews that challenge talking points and spin, commentators that add value, better written teases, intros, tags—in other words, give the viewer a reason to be engaged.   And do all this while fully leveraging social media and the many platforms of Turner and Time Warner.

Clearly, CNN is about to make a management change—probably after the November elections.  But it should immediately improve the quality of its day-to-day production, and honestly evaluate its programming strategy, anchors and other key talent around a clear mission statement and purpose.  

It won't be easy, but remember thirty years ago it wasn't easy for Ted Turner and his pioneering CNN team.   

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Traumatic Brain Injuries

Every 15 seconds, someone in the United States suffers a significant brain injury; about 2 million American adults and children sustain a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, each year.  The injuries are inflicted on battlefields as well as football fields.  The victims come from all walks of life. 
Former New York Giants Hall of Famer Harry Carson appeared in 173 games as a professional, along with nine playoff games and more than 50 preseason games.  He played inside linebacker and led the team in tackles five times.  In his remarkable football career, including high school and college, Carson experienced thousands of collisions.  He estimates he suffered more than a dozen concussions, and he now admits he suffers from forgetfulness and "bouts with depression."

As a freshman soccer player in Alexandria, Virginia, Sarah Rainy suffered a collision in a varsity match in April 2010.  She left the game long enough for a sip of water before returning.  It was not until after the game that she realized something was wrong.  Five-weeks later she courageously told a Congressional committee about her concussion.  “I sometimes now have to use a calculator to do simple arithmetic — it takes me three times as long to do anything,” said Rainey, who was 14 at the time.  “Even when my head is not pounding, I always feel like I am wearing a compression headband.”   

Afghanistan War veteran Nick Colgin, 27-years-old, recently told NY1 News an incoming shell hit of the side of his Humvee.  He went on, "It kind of dazed me, knocked me out, broke my nose. But the worst part was I didn’t know how it affected me, affected my brain."  He told NY1 he can no longer read or write.

According to the Mental Health Association of New York City (MHA-NYC), more than 218,000 cases of TBI have been diagnosed among Afghan and Iraq war veterans over the past decade.  Nearly 4 million American athletes get mild brain injuries, or concussions.  For children a concussion can alter lives by increasing behavioral issues and memory loss.  Two-thirds of people with brain injuries report having poor emotional health and depression, which greatly increases the chance of suicide. 

At an annual fundraising gala Tuesday night in New York City, the MHA-NYC will launch the Traumatic Brain Injury and Emotional Wellness Alliance, an advocacy group that will raise awareness of the mental health impact of TBI.  Three "collaborative councils", made up of leaders from sports, science and veteran's affairs that, "Will advise the Alliance, and drive recognition, science-based information, sound policy and advocacy at the convergence of mental health and TBI issues from the schoolyard and stadium, to the battlefield," the MHA-NYC website reports.  I am a MHA-NYC board member.

ABC News Correspondent Bob Woodruff, himself a victim of a severe brain injury while covering the second war in Iraq, along with his wife Lee, a CBS News Correspondent, will host the MHA-NYC event.  They will be joined by honorees Harry Carson, Sarah Rainy and Sylvia Mackey, widow of NFL and Colt great John Mackey, who co-founded the NFL's "88 Plan", which provides for the care of retired pro players who suffer from TBI.   Of course, the Woodruff's have worked tirelessly on behalf of returning veterans through the Bob Woodruff Foundation for Traumatic Brain Injury Survivors

It is clear there is much to learn about the problems TBI causes, and increasing awareness among all Americans is an important step.  "The Alliance will have a lasting legacy on many thousands of recreational and professional athletes, veterans, and their families by advocating on their behalf to raise awareness of the behavioral health impact of concussions and more sever traumatic brain injuries," said Giselle Stolper, President and CEO of the MHA-NYC.