CNN Wants to Be a Fair Weather Friend, Too

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It’s tough being CNN. The brand that invented the 24-hour news cycle and which made its name covering the Iraq war and other crises has always had to find a way to drive tune-in when there isn’t an OJ Simpson-on-the-lam or other breaking news story.

So if you’re a CNN executive these or most other days, you’re hoping — to yourself, at least — for another “drop everything and watch this” story to unfold somewhere in the world. Nothing really nasty, mind you; just something that will rivet viewers’ attention on CNN the way they always do when something goes bad somewhere around the globe.

“The world still knows to turn to CNN whenever a crisis erupts,” David Bohrman, the Current TV president who served as CNN’s Washington bureau chief, commented to the Wall Street Journal. “That is the brand.” And therein likes the rub.[more]

Serving as TV’s virtual “emergency room” seems to be the only way that the Time Warner-owned cable-news network can get decent ratings, a network employee confided to the New York Times. While CNN’s ratings typically see an uptick in an election year, the network can’t even count on that dynamic anymore — as its April ratings slump going into this U.S. election cycle is showing.

CNN’s main rivals, MSNBC and Fox News, have gone increasingly partisan, so they have sucked up a lot of the politically interested viewership that CNN used to get by default. So in primetime viewing in America, CNN now badly trails both of the other networks, by even more than the same time in the 2008 election cycle. CNN’s pitch has always been that it reaches viewers with deep pockets, an affluent demographic that appeals to higher-end brand marketers, but the truth is it would love to have quantity and quality of audience to pitch to advertisers this (or any) upfront ad sales season.

As Bohrman put it, CNN is still trying to figure out what its brand represents when there is no evident crisis or it’s not Election Day. Beginning in 2010, the network did mount some major new efforts to right the ship, hiring Piers Morgan, for example, to take Larry King’s old 9 p.m. ET slot. But such moves haven’t helped the house that Ted Turner built from “Chicken Noodle News” into the powerhouse, if ratings-challenged, brand that it is today.

CNN executives like to point out that, for Time Warner and the brand, it’s not all about U.S. primetime ratings. CNN does much better in other day parts and beats MSNBC in around-the-clock viewership. The CNN brand is huge outside the U.S., with the recent return of Christiane Amanpour helping restore luster to its global news coverage. “The advertising revenue that we bring in for the prime-time revenues for CNN U.S. is less than 10 percent of the overall revenue” of CNN, Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide, told WSJ.

Still, even as a matter of professional pride, CNN in the U.S. would love to make some progress against Fox and MSNBC. And they’d love to do so without having to rely on a flood, earthquake or explosion to do it for them, so a new 11pm program is in the work (the New York Times reports) — although of course they’d love to have their existing programming be the draw without investing in a pricey new late-night strand to produce and promote.

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