The rearranging of deck chairs is under way at CNN as the flailing and formerly prestigious news organization tries to reverse its ongoing ratings slide into irrelevance. CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, is demanding better results and a better bottom line from the cable channel that was once synonymous with broadcast news immediacy and professionalism.
Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes was quoted saying he is “clearly not satisfied” with CNN’s dismal ratings and promised changes. The movement got going with the recent cancellation of “John King, USA” in the 6 p.m. slot, removing the longtime political reporter from his signature show. King’s ratings had dropped off the table, with fewer than 300,000 viewers on some evenings. By contrast, Bret Baier’s “Special Report” on Fox News Channel normally draws 2 million.
CNN’s round-the-clock viewership is down more than 20 percent in the last year, even in a general election year. Prime-time viewership this spring averaged fewer than 400,000 on some nights, with Anderson Cooper’s show losing a fourth of its audience and Piers Morgan’s show more than that. It has been more than 20 years since so few people watched CNN in prime time.
The morning shows struggle as well. “Starting Point” with Soledad O’Brien at 7 a.m. averages less than a quarter-million viewers a day. O’Brien gets no help from “Early Start,” which precedes her show, because hosts Ashleigh Banfield and Zoraida Sambolin have even lower numbers. CNN is trying to fix “Early Start” by adding of former ABC reporter John Berman.
CNN was once the go-to place for news hounds and helped create the 24-hour news cycle. The channel distinguished itself covering breaking news and especially shined during history-making stories such as the Challenger disaster, the Tiananmen Square protests and the Gulf wars. It provided thoughtful news discussion at times other than Sunday morning. But after media mega-giant Time Warner took it over from Ted Turner in 1996, CNN became just one part of a huge media conglomerate.
Fox News Channel and MSNBC entered the cable news competition in 1996 and divided the all-news audience. The increased competition only partially explains CNN’s decline. CNN had faced new competition in 1982 when ABC-backed Satellite News Channel debuted and fizzled in less than two years because of CNN’s dominance. Fox News, however, exploited CNN’s perceived journalistic imbalance and provided an alternative news vision that led to ratings superiority in less than 10 years.
CNN gets praise from critics at times for being more journalistically centrist than the politically charged MSNBC and Fox News. Many viewers, however, would have a hard time buying that after watching Sambolin’s confrontational interview with congressional candidate Joe the Plumber, or Wolf Blitzer’s recent fawning interview with Bill Clinton. Clinton needed a soft place to walk back his statements about tax cuts and Mitt Romney’s “sterling” business career, and Blitzer delivered, gushing about Clinton’s diet and praising his daughter, Chelsea.
Turning CNN around will take more than razzle-dazzle and new graphics packages. CNN doesn’t need a ratings doctor; it needs a journalism doctor. Somebody to say that a channel that prides itself on breaking news shouldn’t be interspersing coverage of the Wisconsin recall vote with hours-old features from Queen Elizabeth’s anniversary events. Somebody to say that maybe Anderson Cooper is no longer best suited to be the face of CNN. Somebody to say that you don’t enhance your reputation as a news organization by hiring a brash chef like Anthony Bourdain to fill time on weekends. Somebody to say that filling King’s lost hour with a third hour of Wolf Blitzer, as CNN plans to do, will be mind-numbing. Somebody to say that CNN is now wonkish, formulaic, tired and yappy.
CNN’s biggest mistake is its inability to assess the public’s priorities and interests. For example, this is the channel that took a disgraced politician, Eliot Spitzer, and gave him a prime-time show. Predictably, viewers had no interest in the political musings of a former governor who liked high-priced hookers. It is hard to undo that kind of image disaster.