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.
“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’
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
While 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’
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.”
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk