Egypt. Libya. Japan.
That’s all I have to say and you know what I’m talking about. The news has been breathtaking.
On the first day of the Japanese quake and tsunami, videos were played 60 million times on CNN.com — a global record for the website. During the first 10 days of the nuclear crisis, there were 75 million page views a day on news stories — up 66 percent from a year ago. And TV viewership in the U.S. shot up 67 percent for the network in March.
I sat down with Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide, to get a sense of how the mega-news is affecting his financial game plan. Surprisingly, not that much.
“This current news environment — we’re prepared very, very well,” Walton, 52, said.
Over the past few years, as many media outlets cut international staffs and closed bureaus, CNN has beefed up overseas. Walton said “significant investments” were made to expand coverage in places like Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, Kenya, Chile and India.
Here’s his strategy in a nutshell: Build the CNN brand around the world by providing original news content that attracts viewers — and advertisers. Go after the key demographic advertisers want to reach on TV news networks — the 25-to-54-year-olds with above-average education and money.
On the website, Walton said, CNN advertisers are seeking “lots of viewers who come frequently and spend time.” With original content, he said, they spend more time. That’s one of the reasons CNN.com no longer uses the Associated Press stories that are common on many websites.
More original content has helped the bottom line, he said. Despite the recession, CNN’s operating profit worldwide grew an average of 14 percent a year from 2006 to 2010, Walton said.
But I thought CNN was sucking wind? I’ve read a lot about Fox repeatedly beating CNN in U.S. prime-time ratings. In fact, some industry watchers blame Walton for not veering left politically to compete with Fox on the right.
According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, CNN in the U.S. suffered the biggest decline in viewers among the cable news networks last year.
“Clearly, we have to create good TV,” Walton said. “There’s no acceptance of not getting high ratings.”
But he pointed out that U.S. ad sales in prime-time account for less than 10 percent of CNN’s total worldwide revenue.
“We’re more than one domestic network. We’re a global news business,” he said.
That’s one of the reasons CNN shied away from embracing a political point of view.
“Successful businesses know who they are,” Walton said. CNN’s reputation as a top-notch news organization would be compromised, he believes, if a political slant crept into news stories.
“Good journalism is good business for us,” Walton said.
In the future, good business appears to mean more international expansion. Walton said he would like to “start a business or two in the next 12 to 18 months in an emerging market.” He wouldn’t say where.
While plotting his next move, he said it’s critical to maintain the integrity of CNN’s brand.
“If you make a promise, you keep it. That’s what a brand is,” Walton said. “We define what we’re doing and deliver against it.”
- Henry Unger, The Biz Beat
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