CNN's Wolf Blitzer, left, Anderson Cooper and John King at the 2008… (E.M. Pio Roda / CNN )
With the Democratic and Republican national conventions just days away, there's already suspense behind the camera: CNN is staring down one of the worst crises in its 32-year existence.
The cable news network that dominated the political discussion during the 1990s has slumped to record ratings lows this year, with its prime-time audience plunging by more than 40% compared with four years ago (No. 1 Fox News and runner-up MSNBC have each posted double-digit increases). Critics are attacking the Time Warner-owned network's coverage as dull and rudderless. CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton recently announced he will leave at the end of the year, observing that CNN needs "new thinking."
Many industry watchers say change is long overdue, but CNN sees the presidential campaign as an opportunity to prove the doubters wrong. Its new multimillion-dollar studio in Washington is arriving just in time for the President Obama versus Mitt Romney showdown, even if the convention coverage itself doesn't necessarily promise changes that will make viewers snap to attention. The network will start the convention coverage every morning at 5 Eastern time and continue right through a midnight interview show hosted by Piers Morgan, who hosts its flagship prime-time interview program.
FULL COVERAGE: Election 2012
As during the primaries this year, there will be round tables overseen by Anderson Cooper — perhaps the network's biggest star — and other anchors, along with a stable of commentators such as the liberal James Carville and his conservative commentator wife, Mary Matalin. Statistics guru John King will work his hands over the "magic wall" of the electoral college once more — in fact, the new studio has two such computerized graphics boards, for even more "Minority Report"-like razzle-dazzle. It will be the first time CNN has managed its convention coverage from Washington.
"In the next six months, there's going to be a huge amount of viewer interest," said Wolf Blitzer, the veteran CNN anchor and reporter who will be a prominent face at the conventions. "I think people will come back and watch us."
Staffers argue that it is CNN's refusal to "take sides" — in contrast to the sharp partisanship in the Fox and MSNBC nightly lineups — that lends the network its value during a highly charged presidential contest. "I actually don't think most Americans want to be told how to vote," said Sam Feist, CNN's Washington bureau chief.
READ: Convention coverage on other networks
But some influential observers wonder if CNN isn't redefining the meaning of corporate denial.
Jacob Weisberg, editor in chief of the Slate group, said that Twitter has sped up the pace of campaign news and information, making TV increasingly an also-ran in political coverage. And CNN is suffering the most, he argues. "CNN's problem is not that it's neutral; it's that it's bad," he said. "They need to fire most of their people and start over."
Such an assessment might sound unfairly harsh, but Weisberg is hardly the only one voicing it. The man who will be tasked with trying to fix the network, Time Warner Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes, told reporters this month he is "not happy" with the ratings and that the programming needs to be more compelling. CNN is confronting a TV world utterly transformed since founder Ted Turner coined the mantra "News is the star" to guide his quixotic cable network in the 1980s. And at no time is the altered landscape thrown into greater relief than during the presidential campaigns, when the networks trot out their best and brightest to help Americans make sense of the political maneuverings — and, the networks hope, to convert them into regular viewers.
PHOTOS: 'Legitimate rape' and other career-limiting candidate quotes
Morgan, the British interviewer and talent-show judge hired last year to replace Larry King in prime time, said he understands that CNN is at a turning point. This year, the network has floundered with few major running stories besides the presidential contest to capture viewers' imagination (interest in the mass killings at a movie theater in Colorado and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, for example, ebbed after viewers got the initial news breaks).
"When there's no news for sustained periods of time, CNN tends to deflate as a network," Morgan said. "There's a lot of internal debate going on about tone and opinion. I've been given more license to express my opinion. We need to be livelier, more provocative, more opinionated. I know we can be more opinionated without being partisan." Morgan himself has seen such low numbers that this year, greeting the crowd in a convention auditorium, he cracked that it was a bigger crowd than he had seen in a while.