accessAtlanta

City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP
City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP

CNN’s domestic ratings woes mask underlying strengths

CNN headquarters in Atlanta. CREDIT: Vino Wong/ajc.com

CNN headquarters in Atlanta. CREDIT: Vino Wong/ajc.com

When he announced his departure from CNN last month, President Jim Walton said the Atlanta-based news network needed “new thinking” and a plan for change.

But can CNN remake itself?

The answer transcends one company’s bid for a fresh start. Rivaling Coca-Cola as a worldwide corporate symbol of Atlanta, the network founded by maverick Ted Turner employs thousands of metro residents, is a cornerstone in the city’s drive for a permanently vibrant downtown and has become a must-visit attraction for tourists from around the globe.

But questions about CNN’s health, as well as its influence, are growing louder. Interviews with two dozen industry experts and former and current staffers of the cable news pioneer paint a picture of an entrenched organization struggling to connect with viewers and deeply wedded to a domestic news format that hasn’t retained its popularity.

In some ways, those experts say, CNN has become a victim of its own success: Dominance in international news and digital platforms has insulated the network’s domestic operation from moving quickly to respond to shifting viewer expectations in the United States and reverse its plummeting TV ratings.

Jim Walton is stepping down from CNN as president at the end of the year. CREDIT: AP

Jim Walton is stepping down from CNN as president at the end of the year. CREDIT: AP

“They make so much money off the brand’s global appeal that they have had an excuse not to focus on the value of its American television audience, which is changing and wants something else,” says Brad Siegel, who ran Turner Broadcasting’s entertainment division for about a decade until 2003 and is now vice chairman of Atlanta-based GMC network. “They forget that they’re television. People watch news on television and expect certain things. They want personalities they believe in, that are appealing.”

CNN is projected to bring in a hefty $600 million in profits this year, its eighth consecutive year of growth, investors learned in May from Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner, the network’s parent company. But Time Warner management is no longer downplaying CNN’s continuing ratings slide, which hurts advertising revenue and the network’s ability to demand increases in subscription fees from cable and satellite operators.

“Time Warner is cleaning house at CNN because corporate needs the cash and expects CNN to be a reliable profit center, not one that is circling the drain,” says Rich Hanley, journalism professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

Bewkes has publicly acknowledged the network needs a makeover. His comments came days after Walton announced he would be stepping down at year’s end, and weeks after CNN initially botched reporting the U.S. Supreme Court’s health care decision. (Fox News also briefly said the health care law had been overturned).

The CNN brand suffered another black eye earlier this month when one of its program hosts, Fareed Zakaria, was accused of plagiarism in a Time magazine column on gun control and was suspended by the network. (In a statement six days later, CNN said it lifted the suspension after a “rigorous” review.)

“The health care snafu I view as an aberration,” says Frank Sesno, who worked at CNN from 1984 to 2002. But that and Zakaria’s issues “certainly erode the brand when a narrative has been written that things are not going well,” adds Sesno, now director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs in the nation’s capital.

The internal debate at CNN for years, he says, has been quantity vs. quality: “You need to have at least one.” And Time Warner, Sesno says, isn’t happy with either. At the same time, CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley being named one of the moderators for the upcoming presidential debates “indicates that CNN is still recognized as a brand that brings quality judgment to the table.”

Measured just by U.S. television ratings, CNN appears to be in a free fall, hitting 20-year lows in recent months.

The average number of people watching CNN nationwide during prime time last month (489,000) was smaller than the population of Fresno, Calif. (494,665). It’s also about half of CNN’s peak audience in 2008, when the presidential election drew extra eyeballs. What’s more, once-upstart Fox News now draws about three and a half times the prime-time audience of CNN. (CNN still reaches more individual viewers in a given month than Fox, but Fox viewers spend far more time with the network.)

Even MSNBC — a distant third just a few years ago — regularly beats CNN. On a broader measure, CNN was the 37th most popular basic cable channel during the week of August 6, behind the likes of ID, NatGeo and Animal Planet. (Fox News ranked seventh; MSNBC, 23rd.)

Unlike MSNBC and Fox News, CNN has failed to find compelling personalities and programming. Fifteen years of revolving-door management has tinkered to no avail. From Aaron Brown to Eliot Spitzer to the current prime-time lineup featuring Piers Morgan and Anderson Cooper, not much has stuck.

A CNN spokeswoman said Morgan was picked last year to take over for Larry King because the former British newspaper editor had a “bigger, bolder personality,” while the network gave Cooper two hours in prime time because he is one of CNN’s most popular draws.

Mike Klein — a former vice president of news production who worked at CNN from 1984 to 1998 and is now editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation — says he even notices Fox News is the predominant network of choice in Atlanta restaurants and hotel lobbies.

“I ask the employees, without them knowing who I am, why they have Fox on instead of CNN. They say people who use the building want Fox: ‘We’d put CNN on if anybody asks for it. Nobody does.’

“And this is supposedly CNN’s hometown.”

Where CNN’s strong

Klein also seldom watches CNN anymore. But he loves CNN.com.

“It’s a terrific product. I can rely on their stuff. It’s wide ranging. I’m glad it’s available to me.”

Therein lies some of the irony.

Launched on a relative shoestring by Turner 32 years ago, CNN still has the largest news-gathering operation in the world. The network can be seen in more than 200 countries and has access to more than 1,000 resource-sharing affiliates. It has more news bureaus around the globe than MSNBC and Fox News combined.

Walton, stepping down at year’s end after a decade as CNN president, has overseen the network’s evolution into a global and digital powerhouse. CNN.com is the No. 2 news site on the Web — Yahoo! News is tops — and CNN is the top iPad app for news, according to Apple.

While other news operations have slashed staffs the last few years, CNN has been mostly shifting, not cutting, resources. Headcount has remained fairly steady at approximately 4,000 worldwide, with about half based in Atlanta, says a spokeswoman, who did not make executives available to interview for this story.

Siegel believes the company’s overall financial health “has held them back tremendously in being really aggressive about competing for television viewers.” CNN has always lived the mantra of “We are journalists. We are news,” he says.

‘A hunger for change’

Images of CNN Newsroom photographed on July 15, 2011 in Atlanta,Although several CNN employees say morale remains fundamentally sound, they also note staffers are acutely aware of the ratings slide and its deleterious effect on CNN’s reputation.

They grouse that producers lack as much experience as they used to. They find themselves carrying extra burdens now that CNN has dropped access to Associated Press stories, a big money-saving move. Some have noticed CNN increasingly relying on “talking head” analysts and commentators, and less on reported news stories.

“There’s a hunger for change,” says a CNN International employee who wouldn’t comment if his name was used.

“Everybody is aware of the low ratings and how that affects perceptions. It affects your ability to get access to people to interview. Do I go on Wolf Blitzer and his 300,000 viewers, or Bill O’Reilly’s 2 million or Al Sharpton’s 600,000? It puts us at a disadvantage.”

Also readily apparent inside CNN’s downtown Atlanta headquarters is the emphasis on international news, which extends back to the Turner days.

“Ted Turner, God bless him,”says Chuck Roberts, a CNN Headline News anchor from 1982 to 2010. “He pushed the envelope internationally when people thought that was a dumb idea.” Roberts is in China this month teaching media training for the Missouri School of Journalism.

An analysis by the Pew Research Center’s non-partisan Project for Excellence in Journalism showed CNN in 2011 devoted significantly more airtime to international events than its rivals. CNN’s biggest story in 2011 was the series of changes in the Middle East. That topic ranked third on Fox and MSNBC.

“The international side has taken over news-gathering,” said the CNN International insider. “You go the morning meeting, you might think you’re at the BBC.”

That emphasis may be a smart long-term play. The international division totals about 20 percent of CNN’s revenue and is growing rapidly.

But, in the short run, about half of CNN’s revenues still come from domestic cable and satellite subscription fees. Low ratings could threaten that cash cow as contracts come up for renewal with the likes of DirecTV or Comcast, as well as reduce income from advertising.

In comparison, the network’s digital division contributed only about 10 percent of CNN revenue in 2010, according to the most recent statistics released by Time Warner.

Lost in the middle

fox-news-logoWhile CNN’s competitors at Fox and MSNBC have chosen to appeal to partisan audiences with a healthy lineup of opinionated talk shows, CNN has held fast to news programming that the network regards as middle of the road compared with Fox or MSNBC.

But many viewers still regard CNN as a liberal, left-leaning news operation and they’ve abandoned CNN for Fox.

In a conference call with analysts earlier this month, Time Warner’s Bewkes signaled that CNN’s news format isn’t likely to change. CNN will continue to provide “objective, comprehensive, non-partisan coverage really covering all of the partisan views,” Bewkes said. Indeed, the network is touting its “nonstop, unbiased” coverage of the upcoming political conventions, beginning Monday with the Republicans in Tampa.

“As the only cable news channel that has not picked sides in this election, CNN has a unique lens with which to cover these conventions,” said Sam Feist, CNN Washington bureau chief and senior vice president.

Many industry observers are glad network management isn’t changing what they see as CNN playing it straight with the news, rather than reporting from a left- or right-leaning perspective. It’s a debate, though, that Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew journalism project, thinks is misframed.

“There is an appetite for news that presents both sides equally,” Rosenstiel says. “Look at network morning news and evening news. They outdraw all the cable networks.

“The question is: ‘Is political talk shows in prime time the only kind of appointment programming that will work on cable news?” he says, referring to shows people habitually watch, no matter what’s happening in the news.

TV and breaking news

From its early days, CNN has thrived on reporting big breaking news. Think the 1986 Challenger explosion. 1989’s Tiananmen Square uprising. The first Gulf War in 1991. And, 10 years later, 9/11.

And CNN still aggressively pours resources into major news events, whether it’s the so-called Arab Spring launched in 2010, this year’s U.S. presidential campaign or the recent Sikh temple shootings in Wisconsin.

But not all news is big — or breaking.

Randy Harber retired from CNN in March after nearly 32 years as an editor. He recalls editing the first script of the very first show in 1980. One of CNN’s chronic problems, he notes, has been how to get people to watch on days when no major news is occurring.

“CNN has many talented reporters out in the field but I don’t think they’re given the direction to go and cover things in the kind of depth they could,” Harber says. “People know the breaking news. Help them understand how it affects their lives.”

And TV is no longer the obvious place to go when a major story occurs.

“The arrival of mobile is a threat to the one thing that CNN domestic television has always done well: gather an audience when breaking news happens,” says Rosenstiel.

Of 500 people polled by market research firm CJ&N, 44 percent found out about last month’s Aurora, Colo., movie theater shootings from TV. But of those 18 to 24, only 21 percent received the news via television.

Rosenstiel throws out another pressing question: “Can CNN do the one thing that eludes it: create TV shows, rather than rely on breaking news?”

Don’t say ‘reality TV’

Anthony Bourdain is joining CNN next year with a new show, leaving the Travel Channel. CREDIT: AP

Anthony Bourdain is joining CNN next year with a new show, leaving the Travel Channel. CREDIT: AP

Since its early days, CNN has had a go-it-alone style in terms of creating original content. But in May, CNN announced it was picking up a weekend show starring Anthony Bourdain, the well-known chef and international traveler who is leaving the Travel Channel and his Emmy-winning program “No Reservations.” On Thursday, CNN said it will add a show hosted by documentarian Morgan Spurlock, best known for his Oscar-nominated 2004 film “Super Size Me.” His unscripted show for CNN will be produced by an outside production company, not network employees.

Mark Whitaker, CNN worldwide executive VP and managing editor, said at the time that CNN is starting to fish in the same waters as cable channels History Channel and NatGeo, chumming for more shows like Bourdain’s, but only for weekend audiences. “We’re only going to buy the things we think will fit us and what we stand for. We’ve hired executives that specialize in this space.”

This doesn’t mean CNN will start airing its equivalent of “Ice Road Truckers,” Whitaker said. “It will not replace our in-house model. We can do both.”

The New York Post recently reported that CNN is considering a late-night talk show, along the lines of “The View,” a daytime staple for ABC. (CNN briefly aired a weekend late-night show, hosted by comic D.L. Hughley, in 2008 and 2009.)

A CNN spokeswoman declined to comment on the report but released a statement: ”We routinely pursue new talent and programming concepts within the news category.” She also noted CNN doesn’t use the label “reality TV,” instead preferring the term “non-fiction original series.”

But others wonder if CNN’s domestic ratings really matter that much in the long run, whatever programming route it takes. Andrew Tyndall, who has monitored TV news for 20 years, recently wrote a Hollywood Reporter column — “How CNN Can Benefit From Being Bland” — saying the network’s future lies with CNN.com and its robust video-on-demand capabilities.

CNN.com, Tyndall writes, “is proving to be cutting-edge, remaking video news online as thoroughly as it remade broadcast TV news into 24-hour cable three decades ago…”

“In that context, global ubiquity is a greater asset than domestic popularity.”

Join my Facebook fan page and Twitter.

By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk

256 comments Add your comment

pogo

August 25th, 2012
4:48 pm

As long as CNN is nothing more than the mouthpiece for the liberal/progressive movement in this country, they will continue to sink. America is not liberal. America wants the truth, not Solidad Obrien.

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
4:49 pm

If you want the truth without spin, this is where you go.
I don’t need my views validated. I want “just
the facta.”
That is CNN.
If I want what is happening around the world. That is CNN

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
4:49 pm

Anything else is dumbing down!
We have enough of that already!

morn

August 25th, 2012
4:54 pm

stop trying to be fauxnews and bringing in all these right wing nutcases to anchor or guest. Go back to the roots, honest news reporting without the bs. Anyone that thinks cnn is liberal needs some serious help, only the extreme right wing nutcases believe that because it just isnt true

JJT

August 25th, 2012
4:54 pm

It’s funny. When I turn on the TV for news, I immediately go to CNN. Force of habit? Hometown based? But it doesn’t take me long to move on to Fox or the BBC.

morn

August 25th, 2012
4:55 pm

see pogo for example, only a facist would make tha statement

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
4:57 pm

Exactly when did the right decide what America is?
Just because there are more selfish people who don’t care about the country we will continue the decline we are in.
Wake up!

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
4:58 pm

Pogo is what is wrong with America.
Love it or lose it.

Adele

August 25th, 2012
5:16 pm

WHEN I SEE SOLIDAD OBRIEN ON THE TV I IMMEDIATELY TURN THE CHANNEL – SHE IS THE MOST HATEFUL TALKING PERSON ON TV – YOU HAVE HAD SOME WONDERFUL PEOPLE AS YOUR NEWS PEOPLE BUT THEY DON’T SEE TO WANT TO WORK THERE – MEAN SPIRITED INTERVIEWING IS NOT NEWS TO ME -

poof!!!

August 25th, 2012
5:17 pm

Keep it straight ahead CNN don’t bow to the left or the right.

Busterbrown

August 25th, 2012
5:19 pm

If CNN had reported the facts the country would have never elected Barack Obama. They would have questioned his radical ties and cronyism in Chicago. They did the spin for the Democratic party and Chicago machine. I would say this was done to make history by skewing the facts to elect the first black President of the US. This is not reporting, its making and changing the news for ratings and history. Now you have to pay the price of losing trust with the public.

Middle of the Road my SAW#B...

August 25th, 2012
5:23 pm

…The Real Fan is REAL WRONG about CNN – they are as much left of center as Neal Boortz is right of center – and their ratings reveal that a lot of Americans do not buy their slanted “reporting”…

ed

August 25th, 2012
5:26 pm

justtell the truth as best as you can. people know the truth, people also know,when it is not true

Norm

August 25th, 2012
5:34 pm

Thank you for a very well written piece! At one time I only listened/watched cnn but I found their news readers to be dull and opinionated to the left. Mostly however I found them boring. If I want news now I watch Fox, BBC, or MSNBC in that order, frankly, cnn is not even an after thought. I tried watching Larry replacement but I found him to be a pompous windbag that has spent to much time looking in the mirror! Each time I give can another try they continue to disappoint me. Sorry if that makes me a “nutcase”………….

mike d

August 25th, 2012
5:42 pm

I used to watch CCN and HLN all of the time, but haven’t tuned in for years now. One, I’m not sure they even do news anymore. Two, I usually don’t watch news with a spin – CNN is pretty Liberal.

Courtney

August 25th, 2012
5:42 pm

I have always watched CNN, but you have to turn it off at times when it goes all liberal. You cannot out liberal MSNBC , which is pure crap. CNN should once again become a news station and blow the other two out of the water. Half of the people on CNN should be fired tomorrow.

Old Tech

August 25th, 2012
5:51 pm

I agree with Adele, Soledad causes me to change the channel every morning. I wish that even more than a move away from the Left, is more follow up and longer features. I go to HLN for quick little blurbs (that repeat every 15 minutes), I want more depth from CNN.

Todd James

August 25th, 2012
5:53 pm

I remember watching CNN in the mid ’80s. The network seemed objective and thorough on all stories. I could trust CNN then. Now, CNN has its own agenda and slants the news at every chance to further their cause. Any change is welcomed.

North Side Tom

August 25th, 2012
5:54 pm

CNN not liberal? Their latest two hires are liberal. Anthony Bourdain can’t wait to tell any foreigner how stupid Americans are and how awful our food is! Hey Morgan Spurlock did you really have to make a movie to tell us stupid Americans that eating dozens of Big Macs was bad for you? Quick, name the conservative that anchors any CNN show. Well…

Kyle

August 25th, 2012
5:55 pm

CNN needs to do themselves a favor and it would also be a favor to the people that are actually from Georgia and love America and that is move its base to a blue city/state. Chicago would be perfect. CNN is anti-American as is their President and that is his hometown. That would be the perfect fit.

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
5:59 pm

Busterbrown

See what I mean? The right can’t even had a discussion without the right side of their brain exploding.’
If anyone brings up the facts they implode.
What is he reason for that?
Of course it’s that myopic, Xenophobic point of view.

OldSchoolNews

August 25th, 2012
6:00 pm

I miss the original CNN anchors, some of which are STILL in the Atlanta market like Bobbi Battista, Lyn Vaughn and Chuck Roberts. Just because people age does NOT mean they are no longer good journalists. CNN’s ratings started falling once they decided to put children on the anchor desk. Go back to the basics!

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:01 pm

Should any other station move to a state based upon the idiocy of its state viewers.
What kind of logic is that?
Oh wait. Logic is not what is happening here.

Free Hat

August 25th, 2012
6:02 pm

CNN blows monkey chunks

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:03 pm

Reality Bites

See what I mean. Run off Jews and Blacks because they’re ot Americans.
Just white folk. Dumb racist white folk

Logic Man

August 25th, 2012
6:05 pm

I can not imagine why CNN is going broke. Could it have something t do with bias? No way!! We’re just fine thank you.

CNN does NOT blow monkey chunks!

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:06 pm

A comment about monkey chucks pretty much says a lot about the level of intelligence of this discussion.

Auggie

August 25th, 2012
6:06 pm

The people that think CNN is liberal are the same people that buy big gas guzzling SUV’s, move to the far suburbs, complain their commutes are too long but, will drive by themselves, in that car that seats 8 and not ever consider wanting a rail line ran to where they live or take a bus. It just doesn’t make sense. Honestly, I think folks like sitting in traffic because it keeps them away from their families. It’s the only peace they get to themselves. LOL

Ray

August 25th, 2012
6:07 pm

CNN is the most objective and diverse of all the cable networks and they are the network of choice when news breaks. If CNN is so biased, then why don’t they have a bunch of former liberal politicians on their network as commentators? Oh wait, that’s what FOX does when the right wing politicians. Almost every GOP candidate for President was on the Fox payroll this year as a commentator. That is how you spell bias– F-O-X, where they never let the facts get in the way of the stories they want to tell!

Robin Yaht

August 25th, 2012
6:08 pm

There is 69% chance CNN does blow monkey chunks. I just did the calculations.

Auggie

August 25th, 2012
6:09 pm

North side Tom….a guy is a liberal because he’s asking you to eat better, really? My guess is you can stand to read a book or two about keeping yourself healthy.

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:11 pm

Robin Yaht

The only way you would know that is if you blow them.
Which is a 100% probabilty.
Sorry for the math lesson. Not included on Fox I know.

Cindy Lou Who

August 25th, 2012
6:12 pm

if CNN would just be fair and balanced in their reporting a lot more viewers would return.
So slanted to the left and so biased it is hard to watch. However, still watch Anderson and Sanjay -
love their personalities.

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:12 pm

Auggie

Do yu really think a Fox watcher has read a book since not finishing high school?

jim

August 25th, 2012
6:13 pm

CNN is full of DRAM, DRAMA , and More DRAMA….not news!

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:13 pm

Cindy Lou Who

And Fox is right down the middle?
Get out more often.

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:13 pm

I have a very advanced degree you bunch of MORONS. I also am a licensed lawyer. You rednecks are idiots.

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:14 pm

jim

Spell check is your friend!

Auggie

August 25th, 2012
6:15 pm

The Real Fan.

You have a point. Books make you think for yourself, that isn’t what the folks at Fox like.

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:15 pm

The other Real Fan needs his/her own moniker.

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:16 pm

I think Anderson Cooper is DREAMY.

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:17 pm

I just drool when I look into those intelligent eyes… wow

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:18 pm

See what I mean?
An inablity to express themselves

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:18 pm

Who cares about the news. dreamy…

THe Row

August 25th, 2012
6:20 pm

Kyle,

If he is not your President too, then you are one who is not a true American.

ms mayers

August 25th, 2012
6:23 pm

I try to watch cnn every now and then, but they just don’t hold my interest, especially the morning shows, seems pretty left leaning and proud of it, if they ever get a really good morning anchor that at least tries to be fair and impartial in their reporting of the news I might watch but I usually watch about a minute of them and move on the fox news,they dont seem to dwell on one subject as much as cnn does in my opinion, maybe Ted Turner could offer them some good advice if they’d talk with him about the possibility of being a consultant to them to try and get them back on track ,if he would be interested in doing so,that is.

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:24 pm

Again what we have here is a failure to communicate.
Birthers are trying to capture this elction.
And Akin followers.

GTU

August 25th, 2012
6:24 pm

Pogo, I totally agree.

North Side Tom

August 25th, 2012
6:25 pm

Hey Auggie, You missed the point. Liberals think the vast majority of people are stupid and need the government to tell them what to do and to keep them dependent on hand outs e.g., Morgan Spurlock. FYI, I just finished reading American Emperor by David O. Stewart (it’s about Aaron Burr) I also alternate between p90x and Insanity. I am 55 and in the best shape of my life. 5% body fat. YA you rite we consrvative r so dumb.

The Real Fan

August 25th, 2012
6:26 pm

When I here someone say CNN is left leaning I know what that means.
They don’t reinforce those right-wing falsehoods.