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Is CNN looking for its own game change?

With the Republican and Democratic national conventions approaching, the news network is in a quandary about the direction it needs to take to regain its declining viewership, which some say might involve dropping its refusal to 'take sides' in the political debate.

August 26, 2012|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times

But even Morgan — not known for self-doubt or lack of clarity — seems a bit hazy on the best way out of CNN's plight. At one point, he said, "It's not rocket science. It's bleeding obvious." But how much opinion is too much? How can CNN exploit opinion in a way that doesn't damage its long-cherished desire to make news the star, to avoid "taking sides"?

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Morgan admitted: "It's incredibly tricky."

CNN's current predicament is a stunning reversal from years past, when the network was a news colossus.

During the 2000 Democratic National Convention in downtown Los Angeles, for example, CNN was still atop the cable ratings, with Fox just beginning to nip at its heels. For a channel that barely 10 years earlier has been ridiculed as "Chicken Noodle News" — in early days, the network operated at a such a low level that a reporter was caught on live camera picking his nose — CNN enjoyed an exhilarating perch. Turner's network occupied premium skybox space at Staples Center, with then stars such as King and Greta van Susteren prowling the halls and chatting up political luminaries. The upstart Fox News was relegated to trailers and tents in a cramped parking lot, where a tall, ambitious and opinionated program host sat slumped, writing his own copy. That was Bill O'Reilly.

The following year brought the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Fox, owned by right-leaning media kingpin Rupert Murdoch and led by former Richard Nixon operative Roger Ailes, exploited the surge of patriotism sweeping the country by putting the image of a rippling American flag onscreen. Liberals called it a cynical stunt, but many viewers liked the chyron flag, and it became a Fox signature. The network emphasized colorful graphics and attractive anchors during the day, then at night pushed pugnacious, right-of-center hosts like Sean Hannity and O'Reilly — whose "The O'Reilly Factor" became the top-rated cable news show not long after. CNN, meanwhile, stuck with middle-of-the-road, not-overtly political anchors such as Blitzer and the now-departed Aaron Brown, and later, Cooper and Erin Burnett, the latter an import from NBC.

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The viewers' verdict has been decisive. Fox brushed past CNN in the ratings early in the last decade and has since solidified its lead while its longtime nemesis has crumbled. MSNBC, which struggled to find its footing for years, has recently seen strong ratings growth by giving a soapbox to popular liberals such as Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell and the now departed Keith Olbermann.

At the moment, CNN — still headquartered in its birthplace of Atlanta — looks locked in a seemingly unstoppable downward spiral. In July, CNN averaged just 519,000 total viewers in weeknight prime time, a shocking 42% slide since July 2008, according to Nielsen. Fox has meanwhile risen 18%, to just over 2 million, during the same period, while MSNBC has climbed 37%, to 855,000.

Surprisingly, the rating hemorrhage hasn't shoved CNN into the red — at least not yet. According to media research firm SNL Kagan, CNN's U.S. network will earn in 2012 about $400 million on just over $1 billion in revenue from ad sales and subscriber fees. However, those numbers have remained stubbornly flat over the last few years.

Feist, CNN's Washington bureau chief, pointed out that healthy revenues for CNN International, which operates around the world, virtually ensure a handsome return for Time Warner, which faces plenty of other challenges, as with its slumping magazines. That may help explain why the pace of change has remained slow as U.S. rivals have zoomed past CNN's domestic network.

"This is going to be a really good year for CNN, despite all the stories by media writers," Feist said. "CNN's ratings have peaks and valleys that are higher and lower than those of our competitors. We have a different product."

"This is our Olympics, every four years," Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, said by phone.

Griffin is talking about the party conventions, which are a veritable showcase for cable news networks. The GOP, expected to nominate Mitt Romney with Paul Ryan as his running mate, will go first from Tampa, Fla., starting Monday (hurricanes permitting). The Democrats will follow the next week from Charlotte, N.C., and will renominate President Obama.

The broadcast networks began covering these conclaves in the 1950s and saw a great deal of success with them until the rise of cable. But over time, ABC, CBS and NBC — which used to lavish air time and news resources on the election horse races — have gradually whittled convention time to about one hour per night as cable networks have filled the gap with nonstop coverage that usually draws a robust audience. Historians say that the media changes reflect shifts in the nature of the conventions themselves.

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