NEW YORK — In the summer of 2008, as CNN surfed a massive wave of interest in the presidential race, network president Jon Klein laid out how he planned to keep viewers after the election faded.
While his competitors believed "the more opinionated the better," Klein said he had a different strategy: "If we concentrate on really being the best news network in the world, we'll continue to do well and grow and do even better."
But a year after a record 13.3 million people tuned in for CNN's election night coverage, the network has lost much of the gains it made during the political boom time. CNN has drawn an average of 932,000 viewers in prime time this year, down 25% compared with the same point last year, according to Nielsen.
The trend has worsened as the year has progressed. In October, it recorded its smallest audience of the year, barely edging out its sister network HLN to avoid placing fourth in the key 25- to 54-year-old demographic in prime time. (Among total viewers, CNN still beat MSNBC across all programming, but placed a distant second to Fox News.)
CNN is even feeling the slump on nights when it is expected to dominate. On Tuesday, it placed fourth with its election coverage, attracting just 826,000 viewers in prime time. Fox News had more than 4 million, while MSNBC drew 974,000 and HLN (which didn't cover the election) had 842,000.
The network's declining audience share comes as loud, boisterous cable hosts have higher profiles than ever. Since Obama's election, the tone has become more strident: Fox News' Glenn Beck regularly accuses the administration of fascism, while MSNBC's Keith Olbermann goes after conservatives such as Michelle Malkin, whom he recently called a "big mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick."
The inflamed rhetoric has helped CNN's rivals retain their prime-time audiences. Fox News, on track to have its best year ever, has averaged 2.16 million viewers this year, a boost of 10% from 2008, while MSNBC is a close third with 810,000, down 3%.
CNN's predicament is endemic at the network, which pioneered the cable news format but struggles to stem viewer attrition when major stories subside. Network executives insist that they are not alarmed by the drop-off, noting that prime time makes up just 10% of the revenue of CNN Worldwide, which continues to enjoy profit growth. And CNN/U.S. is still on track to have its biggest audience in the last five years, excluding 2008.
"No one expected us to deliver the same numbers this year as we did during the election," Klein said this week.
Still, after crowing about its ratings victories last year, CNN is now in the awkward position of trying to explain why its declining audience is not an issue.
"We are not going to try to boost numbers during fallow news periods by running cartoons, as our competitors do," Klein said. "We're going to cover the news and we'll attract an ever more loyal audience as the result of it."
"They are in a completely different business than we are," he added. "We are not putting out the same product as they are. And we shouldn't be compared to them on that account."
Rival executives scoff at that assertion. Newscasts dominate the daytime lineup of MSNBC and Fox News, whose Bret Baier and Shepard Smith anchor news programs that ranked among the top five most-watched cable shows in October.
"Jon's correct: It's unfair to compare CNN to Fox News," said Fox News spokeswoman Dana Klinghoffer. "Based on his network's dismal ratings, it's more accurate to compare CNN to the G4 channel."
And CNN hosts don't all eschew opinion: Lou Dobbs has drawn protests for his comments about illegal immigrants, while Campbell Brown occasionally does her own commentaries. Last week, she chided the White House for criticizing partisanship on Fox News but not on MSNBC, adding: "Some of us like my colleagues here at CNN are still trying to do journalism."
That attitude infuriates CNN's competitors.
"Our guys do have a point of view in prime time, but they base everything on research and facts and they're smart," said MSNBC President Phil Griffin. "If they're going to carry this so-called flag of news, why don't they do it? They've got one foot in and one foot out, and I think that's why they're struggling."
CNN executives said Dobbs has complied with their request made several months ago to tamp down the opinion on his show. And Brown does not venture into the same kind of terrain as her rivals, they said.
"The whole point is that she's not taking partisan positions, she's just simply calling out obfuscation or worse when she sees it, whoever utters it," Klein said.