It's been the hot topic in media circles for the past week or so, following the release of the latest cable news ratings. Those that actually care about such things are asking: can CNN be saved?
Our initial, waggish reaction could be summed up by saying "no," or "why would anyone want to?" Among the dinosaur media, the original cable news outlet seems to have found its place in the tar pits and is settling in for that celestial ooze nap.
Just how bad is it at CNN? According to Nielsen estimates, the network's prime time hosts have lost over half their audience in a year. Adding insult to injury, CNN not only loses (badly) to Fox News Channel in prime time, it also trails MSNBC. And, in February--CNN's worst month ever--the news outlet also trailed its sister network, HLN (formerly Headline News) and even CNBC, which was airing portions of NBC's Olympics coverage.
And March hasn't been much better. Courtesy of TV Newser, take a look at the numbers for last Thursday. At 5 pm, Glenn Beck's program on FNC attracted 516,000 viewers in the 25-54 demographic, the most coveted age group for broadcasters and advertisers. In the same time period, Wolf Blitzer's show on CNN had only 73,000 viewers in the demographic, while MSNBC's Chris Matthews attracted 68,000.
At 8 pm the numbers are equally glum. Bill O'Reilly, the king of cable news, had 653,000 viewers in the 25-54 age group. Meanwhile, only 128,000 people in the same age group bothered to watch his competition on CNN (Campbell Brown). In fact, O'Reilly has a larger audience that Ms. Brown, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and HLN's Nancy Grace combined. No wonder FNC is on track to generate $700 million in profits this year.
Which brings us back to our original question about "saving" CNN. Various pundits have suggested the network needs more "opinion" TV, similar to the offerings on Fox and MSNBC. Readers will recall that CNN was "shamed" into cancelling its long-time debate program (Crossfire) by that arbiter of public taste, Jon Stewart. Some would argue that the show was already on its deathbed when Mr. Stewart launched his famous tirade, but we digress.
Would a new slate of "debate" programs bring more viewers to CNN? Perhaps. First of all, new hosts couldn't do any worse than the current line-up. Secondly, no network has a monopoly on programming that is original or compelling. The trick is finding someone who can deliver the goods, both in front of and behind the camera. Unfortunately for CNN, their prime time "answer" has been 110-year-old Larry King and a couple of broadcast network refugees, Anderson Cooper and Ms. Brown. They replaced anchors (Aaron Brown, Paula Zahn) with similar pedigrees, so there's no reason to believe that the next wave would be any different.
So, how about something different--say, a return to CNN's roots in news. When the cable network made its debut 30 years ago, it offered extended newscasts in prime time and even late night. If there was breaking news, CNN was inevitably on top of it, and stayed with the story for hours (or days) on end.
And more importantly, the network generally played it straight. Back in those days, most of the anchors and producers were graduates of local stations, more concerned about getting the story on the air than providing a particular a particular slant or perspective. The network also recognized that some outlets could do a better job in covering a story and occasionally carried newscasts or special reports from its local affiliates.
But all of that changed with the first Gulf War, when CNN's round-the-clock coverage was a media sensation. With critical acclaim (and a bigger audience), the cable news outlet began acting like the rest of the MSM. Many of the original anchors and reporters were replaced by talent that previously worked for the broadcast networks. And the long slide began.
Would a renewed emphasis on straight news work (as competition for "argument" shows on
other networks)? The case against that approach goes something like this: newscasts are more expensive than talk shows; viewers can get information from other sources and "typical" CNN newscasts in prime time (or the late evening) would turn off as many viewers as they might attract.
Still, CNN typically gets a ratings boost when there is a big story, and even topped FNC in the not-to-distant past. Even if CNN couldn't hold that audience, it highlighted the network's long-time leadership in breaking news, and the willingness of viewers to tune in. Despite its ratings woes, CNN still has a little bit of brand loyalty left, a loyalty that could be leveraged with a return to the no-frills reporting that built the network. Additionally, the success of all-news radio and regional cable networks proves there is an audience for hard news at all hours of the day and night.
This much we know: CNN is fast approaching the point of no return in terms of programming. The ratings for its prime-time line-up are simply unsustainable, and CNN's morning numbers are just as bad. At some point, the suits at Time-Warner will be forced to make choices that will make the network competitive, or seal its fate, once and for all. A return to the "old CNN" would be a major gamble, but it might be the only thing that can save the network.
ADDENDUM: On the other hand, don't hold your breath waiting for CNN to rediscover its roots. According to the rumor mill, the network recently taped a pilot for a morning show featuring the odious David Shuster of MSNBC. Trouble is, Mr. Shuster didn't tell his bosses about the project and he's now been suspended from the network. If CNN believes it can solve its ratings debacle with "talent" like Mr. Shuster, then Time-Warner would be well advised to put a "For Sale" sign on the network.
When CNN signed on almost 31 years go, Ted Turner vowed his network would remain on the air "until the end of the world." For CNN, that moment is fast approaching.