"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.