How to Fix CNN

Media watchers, ex-industry executives and network personalities on how to improve ratings

By Michael Calderone
|  Wednesday, Mar 31, 2010  |  Updated 9:15 PM PDT
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How to Fix CNN

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Is it time for a radical re-thinking of “the most trusted name in news,” the network of John King, Larry King, Anderson Cooper, Campbell Brown and Wolf Blitzer?

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The future of CNN, never exactly bright the last couple of years, suddenly looked dire this week when new ratings came out showing a 40 percent decline in prime-time viewers since 2009.

Jon Klein, the network president, has consistently defended the network’s down-the-middle news strategy despite the increasingly large ratings leads opened up by MSNBC and particularly Fox, with their ideological slants and big personalities.

So is it time for a radical re-thinking of “the most trusted name in news,” the network of Larry King, Anderson Cooper, Campbell Brown and Wolf Blitzer? We asked a dozen or so prominent media watchers, former industry executives and CNN personalities for their recommendations.

Their near-consensus: It has to change, get more personality, no longer be – as one media critic called it – “the view from nowhere.” Exactly how to do that was not so easy to agree on – and one person we asked, Phil Donahue, doesn’t think it needs to change at all. But the responses from everyone else broke down into five different approaches.

Bring back “Crossfire”

Ask a couple former “Crossfire” hosts for a solution to CNN’s ratings troubles, and maybe it’s not a surprise what their answer is: Resurrect their old show.

Both Michael Kinsley and Bill Press—each who had stints taking the liberal side of the right vs. left political slugfest—think it’s worth a shot.

By bringing back “Crossfire,” they argue, CNN could continue with its strategy of not falling squarely on the left or the right in prime-time, but still offer lively opinion on both sides—something it appears that viewers want.

Five years ago, one of Klein’s first orders of business after becoming network president was killing off the long-running show, a pioneer in high-decibel political debate which had been the recipient of harsh on-air criticism from Daily Show host Jon Stewart just a few months before.

“When he unceremoniously dumped it, Jon Klein said he wanted straight news and not commentary or opinion,” Kinsley told POLITICO. “And now he's got everyone expressing opinions left and right—because that's what people like.’

“’Crossfire’ used to vie with Larry King as the network's number-one show—and we beat him on many nights, even though he had us as a lead in and we had Lou Dobbs,” Kinsley said, adding that he means “the early Lou Dobbs, the boring corporate suck-up, not the new exciting xenophobic Lou Dobbs of legend.”

“We were number one,” said Press, a top liberal radio host who was on “Crossfire” from 1996 to 2003. He described Klein’s pulling the plug on “Crossfire” as “one of the biggest mistakes in the history of modern television journalism.”

Forget neutral – create a new identity

Davidson Goldin, the former editorial director of MSNBC, who now runs a communications business in New York, worked at CNN’s cable news competitor as it morphed into a liberal alternative to Fox in the evenings. From that experience, he thinks that “CNN needs to find an identity and own that identity.”

“A news channel trying to build a brand by saying they cover news is like a restaurant trying to become popular by saying it cooks food,” he said.

 

“What we understood from the get-go was that by focusing on opinion, analysis and using topic-area expertise to draw conclusions, we could easily differentiate ourselves from CNN, that was so wedded to just regurgitating the facts,” Goldin said.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, author of the “PressThink” blog, said the choice doesn’t have to be between “the view from nowhere”—what reporters might call "straight down the middle" journalism”—or the Fox News/ MSNBC model. 

“Maybe the view from nowhere has failed, not because audiences want opinion rather than hard news but because the Voice of God isn't as convincing as it once was,” Rosen said. “Nothing will improve at CNN until the people running the news report consider that viewless-ness may not be an advantage, but ideology is not the only alternative.”

Press added that he thinks CNN “is going to have to bite the bullet and do some advocacy programming,” because in his opinion, “there ain’t no room in the middle.”

Viewers, he continued, get their straight news elsewhere and are “looking for opinion in prime-time… anchors with an edge.”

Bring in big personalities

Adding more “edge” in prime-time doesn’t necessarily mean rushing out to hire a fire-breathing host on the left of right. Personalities larger than life, or so normal they stand out, would do the trick.

Michael Wolff, founder of Newser.com and a Vanity Fair contributing editor, pointed out that “the viewing audience is just less and less interested in traditional television civic-minded news delivered by what are, in effect, news readers.”

“CNN has to figure out how to make the news either more efficient or more entertaining,” Wolff continued. “These are the two keystones of modern news, and the network is deficient on both counts. I suppose I would try formats that gave you what you need to know in minutes instead of blocks, and personalities that had stronger voices—not necessarily ideological voices, but more unique and identifiable ones.”

As for who could fill that role, Wolff said it could be “anybody who doesn't wreak of conventional television.”

Wolff noted one of the secrets of Fox News chief executive Roger Ailes’' success: “Find people who don't look or sound like what you think television people should look and sound like.”

Aaron Brown, who was replaced in 2005 by Cooper at 10 p.m., said that CNN doesn’t have the “big, broad personalities” that seem to excel these days in the evenings on cable news. Brown included himself in that group, along with Campbell Brown, John King, and Cooper.

“If I were at CNN, the thing that would scare me is not that we’re losing, but that it’s that re-runs are beating us,” Brown said. “At 10 p.m., a two-hour-old “Countdown” is beating my guy, the guy I have invested millions in promotional dollars.”

Jazz up the broadcast

Atlantic contributing editor Michael Hirschorn, a former top executive at VH1 who founded production company Ish Entertainment, said CNN should step away from “headline-type news”, which has become “ increasingly easy to access, and, therefore, commodified.”

“What's working right now is news packaged as entertainment,” Hirschorn continued, “which is a tempting route for them to go down, and which they've gone down in a toe-in-the-water kind of way.” He pointed out the short-lived comedy news show hosted by D.L. Hughley as an example).

However, Hirschorn said that “it's a gamble they can only take once in earnest.”

 

“What might yield more rewards is doing a full overhaul of their news operations,” he continued. “Update the look, the language, the production style. If you look at some of the stuff the BBC is doing, it's a lot more nimble, raw, real, less larded with the kind of newsy bushwa Jon Stewart makes fun of. But that would involve firing a lot of producers and on-air personalities and that's always hard to do."

Hirschorn believes CNN could find success by focusing more on specific audiences, “focused shows that serve specific audiences. “’Morning Joe’ may have a small audience but the people who love it love it,” he said. (While still behind Fox & Friends, the MSNBC morning show topped CNN, CNBC and HLN in viewers this past month).

Mix it up….

Others suggested everything from tweaking the current line-up—perhaps with a new personality or two—to scrapping it in exchange for something completely different.

If Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy had his way, the network would bring back Aaron Brown at 10 p.m. and move Cooper to 9 p.m.

Kennedy, who also writes the “Media Nation” blog, said that he likes “the idea of leaving CNN as the sole cable net doing news during prime-time,” and enjoyed it when Brown squared off against Brian Williams’s old 10 p.m. newscast on MSNBC. “They were both terrific, and you could just pick whichever one seemed most interesting on a given night,” he said.

“The 8 o'clock hour is probably going to be a loser no matter what you do, because CNN is up against the heavyweight bout between Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann,” Kennedy said. “Yet it's important to get things off to a good start, since you need a decent lead-in for 9 p.m.”

“Wouldn't it have been great to have a newscast focusing on international news anchored by Christiane Amanpour?” he asked, referring to ABC News’ latest acquisition. “Too late for that.”

Rosen has his own ideas for a 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. line-up.

At 7 p.m., he would rename John King’s show “Politics is Broken,” and focus on “bringing outsiders to Beltway culture and Big Media into the conversation dominated by.... Beltway culture and Big Media.”

Rosen would program “Thunder on the Right” at 8 p.m., a show where a well-informed liberal “mostly covers the conservative movement and Republican coalition and where the majority of the guests (but not all) are right leaning.” 

The following hour would be “Left Brained,” a show offering the opposite mix of hosts and guests. And at 10 p.m. would be “Fact Check,” an accountability show with major crowdsourcing elements” that would cut through “the week's most outrageous lies, gimme-a-break distortions and significant misstatements with no requirement whatsoever to make it come out equal between the two parties on any given day, week, month or season.”

 

Rachel Sklar, editor-at-large of Mediaite, a media industry site, didn’t call for a return of “Crossfire,” but does think one of its last hosts on the right should make a comeback on CNN. Her idea of a good pair: Tucker Carlson and Ana Marie Cox.

Both Carlson, who this year co-founded The Daily Caller, and Cox, currently the Washington correspondent for GQ, have had lively debates on the Washington Post’s website. Sklar described Carlson as “authentic and engaging on-air,” while noting that Cox has “a built-in audience thanks to Twitter and [filling in for MSNBC host Rachel] Maddow, and the cool-kid cred that CNN seems to crave.”

“They had a good thing going in their WaPo chats, and I bet that would play well on screen—they’re smart and watchable and neither of them are particularly afraid to piss anyone off,” she continued. “And while they take the news seriously, they don't take the players—or themselves!—seriously. As a general rule, maybe that's the way to go.”

But don’t screw it up.

“If they ‘fix’ CNN to be like Fox and MSNBC, then who will we turn to when we want that breaking news coverage?” Sklar asked. “The breaking news coverage without an agenda?”

Prime-time, she noted, is only a “piece of the puzzle” with the demo—the prized age 25-54 demographic—even smaller.

“Stop for a moment and think about what CNN stands for. It feels pretty important right now,” Sklar said. “So, yes, tinker with the execution, by all means—that’s clearly broken, and there are ways to fix it. But the central mission matters, and I still truly believe there's a market for it.”

Aaron Brown, now the Walter Cronkite professor of journalism Arizona State University, makes the point that while CNN is taking heat for its prime-time ratings, the network is still a “highly profitable business” overall.

“What they do have to do is endure the fact that each month or week or year, there are going to be stories about how they get their asses kicked,” Brown said. “But as a business, they are doing just fine.”

Indeed, while any network would want to turn a profit and take home bragging rights in the ratings, Brown pointed out that the former is still the primary goal for executives.

“If I had to choose and I’m [CNN Worldwide president] Jim Walton or the Time Warner guys, I’d choose to make a fortune,” Brown said. “If I’m anchoring the show, I’d want to win, or I wouldn’t want to lose to a re-run.”

And then there is Donahue, the daytime talk-show pioneer who hosted an MSNBC prime-time show from 2002-2003. He said he hopes CNN will weather the current trend in cable news.

“At this moment, their competition is more entertaining than they are,” Donahue said. “And I admire them for holding on and not being seduced by that kind of arm-waving.”

But at this point, for CNN, holding on may not be enough.

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