the problem with cnn

Brian Stelter of the NYT has a useful piece today on CNN’s ratings problem.

Read the whole thing here. The nut of it though, and the essence of CNN’s management problem, is in these paragraphs:

CNN, with its vast news-gathering resources and a heap of international channels, is set to make nearly $600 million in operating profit this year, a record high, for its parent company, Time Warner. But the downward ratings trend for CNN/U.S., its flagship channel in the United States, has stirred discontent within CNN and Time Warner. Performance of CNN/U.S. drives public perception — and employee pride — and declines there may gradually damage CNN’s networks as a whole.

Jeffrey Bewkes, the Time Warner chief executive, has made his dissatisfaction about the CNN/U.S. ratings known to his lieutenants and expects them to make changes, according to some of the 15 current and former CNN employees interviewed for this article. Those people, representing a wide cross-section of the channel, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by their bosses to talk to a reporter.

One of the employees said that Jim Walton, who oversees all of the CNN networks, and his boss, Philip I. Kent, who runs the Turner Broadcasting division of Time Warner, were under “intense pressure” to raise the ratings this spring.

So what’s wrong with CNN? The big clue is hiding in plain sight, in the slogan for Anderson Cooper’s prime time show, which is marketed as ‘keeping them honest.’

The problem is ‘them.’ If you’re a Fox News viewer, you know who ‘them’ is – the mainstream media, Democrats, President Obama, teachers. Different villains but the same sort of certainty applies to MSNBC.

But CNN’s ‘them’? It’s vague, you can’t focus on it, it’s elusive. One night it’s a guy from Syria, the next it’s a Republican, the third it’s Obama. This is supposed to show admirable independence and even-handedness, and I think CNN secretly believes people will reward the channel as an equal opportunity offender.

What people do instead is punish CNN for leaving them adrift in a sea of conflicting opinions. Even if you don’t like Fox News, oppose every thing the channel promotes, you know where you stand when you watch it. In fact, Fox (and MSNBC, which isn’t anywhere near as good at being consistent) clears your head, provides a compass.

Of course, to get to that kind of clarity you have to rely more on rhetoric and less on fact. CNN’s great, overarching strength is that it can still provide the other kind of clarity, the kind in which your politics are muddled, but you know a lot because you have a lot of facts. CNN is still big enough, strong enough to provide facts. (It’s not widely acknowledged, but Fox is a much smaller news operation than CNN or even MSNBC.)

CNN is not in the same business as MSNBC and Fox News, and the more they try to be, the more they fail. A useful analogy is Washington D.C. radio, where there are talk stations that do some news – and there’s WTOP, a hugely successful all-news operation. (How successful? CBS sees money in the model, having opened an all news competitor to ‘TOP.)

CNN can never compete with ideological t.v. on its own turf, which is why the prime time shows are so empty feeling and unsatisfying: they still have a foot in the traditional values of fairness and, ummm, reality, which mutes their ability to be *really* pointed and *really* angry. You can’t affirm whatever prejudices your audience brings to the table if part of your business is still pointing back at the facts.

The folks I’ve talked with at CNN over the years, the people at the grunt level, tend to see it the same way I do, that they’re in a fundamentally different business. But the folks at the top never could get past that something which called itself ‘news’ swept in and took the numbers and money, regardless of how different it was from a traditional news source.

CNN sees the ratings hit it takes during quiet news times as an existential problem, one that Fox solved and they haven’t. I think they’re wrong, and that what CNN has really not done is define itself sufficiently for long enough to build an audience in prime. (They had one when they were the only game in town, lost it to Fox and concluded they were behind, rather than the more accurate conclusion – they’re different.)

Were it me, I would ditch the prime line up, stress national and especially international news and do more with ‘CNN Presents,’ the 60 Minutes-ish magazine the network doesn’t define or promote well, but which does good work anyway.

I’d like to watch prime time that didn’t feel like junk food, and that didn’t waste time telling me it wasn’t. I’d like to see what the nation and world looks like. I’d like to travel, vicariously, to lots of places. The world is great big and interesting, a lot more interesting than the 10 stories everyone covers and the few around the margins they argue over. I’d like CNN to do this for me with no fuss or muss.

I’m NOT asking for public tv. As admirable as much of public tv is, it still doesn’t have the finely honed sense of what’s interesting. CNN does. It just has to find it.


4 thoughts on “the problem with cnn

  1. You lay out the problem nicely.

    If you accept the premise that Fox occupies the right and MSNBC occupies (unevenly) the left, there’s no place left for CNN.

    There’s nothing in the center. The center is not a political philosophy; it’s a strategy.

    CNN doesn’t need to fill a political niche. It needs to figure out what the market needs that it’s not getting elsewhere, and fill it.

    And accept lower ratings in exchange for profitability and respect.

    Because the course they’re on is headed to the Land of Epic Fail.

  2. ‘Epic fail’ is the right phrase. They are as tone deaf as tone deaf can be: Erin Burnett’s 7 p.m. hour feels, well, empty, with the loose ends of perkiness and sloganeering banging up against each other.

    My favorite is at 7:30, where they pick five stories to talk about – Burnett’s off-key pitch is ‘5 stories we care about.’ And ‘we do our own reporting,’ and most weirdly, at some point she talks about the ‘outer circle,’ which is supposed to signify reaching out but which ends up just being…peculiar.

    There are nights when I want to shout at my tv “What’s wrong with you people?”

    1. It’s sad, really.

      We need a news channel of record. We just don’t need it all the time.

      And what the market does not need, at all, is one more shouter doing a piss-poor imitation of Fox because they lack Fox’s willingness to go full-bore batshit.

      I don’t know what we need that CNN can supply, but it’s clear we don’t need to buy what they’re selling right now.

      But here’s a thought: NPR made itself relevant and powerful by absolutely ignoring commercial tastes and trends. There is no analogue to NPR in TV — PBS isn’t close and is moving farther away with each move.

      So how about hard news and calm talk for TV? Ratings winner? Never. Profitable? Probably.

  3. I think the people in charge of CNN would dread ever being associated with NPR-like thinking, though it makes sense to me. The analogy I use is the New York Times: you may not reach everybody, but you reach everybody with money and influence. The response from CNN would likely be, ‘Those folks never, ever watch tv,’ and maybe they’re right, but I don’t see another way forward for CNN.

    And I like ‘hard news and calm talk.’

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