CNN Fades in Prime-Time Picture

By Michael Calderone
|  Saturday, May 30, 2009  |  Updated 9:30 PM PDT
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CNN Fades in Prime-Time

Anderson Cooper's magic may be wearing off.

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On day one, CNN ruled cable news.

But while viewers may flock to the network for election day or the Inauguration, day 130 is a different story.

CNN, which just took home a Peabody Award for its 2008 election coverage, and dominated cable-news ratings on days when politics took center stage, is having trouble getting those viewers back on other nights.

Since Obama took office, CNN’s prime-time audience has dropped sharply, raising doubts about whether the network’s middle-of-the-road strategy can be effective against more opinionated programming on Fox News and MSNBC.

CNN President Jon Klein is quick to brush aside concerns about specific ratings metrics, and chatter online about the network’s prime-time decline.

Klein, who last year trumpeted CNN’s quarterly win over Fox News in prime-time viewers in the 25-54 demographic preferred by advertisers, now maintains that the nightly block is just a fraction of the daily schedule, and that his network remains committed first and foremost to high-quality journalism.

“It’s the oldest trick in the book to trot out over-the-top hosts and put them on a cable-news show,” Klein said.

Klein pointed out that "Anderson Cooper 360" is beating "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" at 10 p.m. — but of course, that’s the repeat of the 8 p.m. airing of Olbermann's MSNBC show. And while year-to-date, Cooper maintains a sizable lead, he hasn't been winning by nearly as much lately.

It's Cooper’s ratings that are the most troubling, say staffers, given the resources and heavy promotion for his show, and persona. For years, Klein has talked up Cooper, once famously dubbing him “the anti-anchor” and, in the aftermath of Katrina, as “a reporter [who’s] got that magical something.”

But that magic may be wearing off.

Cooper dropped from 1.4 million viewers in January to 1.06 million in April, according to Nielsen. And that trend will continue in May: Cooper has yet to crack 1 million viewers this month, and even fell as low as a half-million one evening. Also while "360" is ahead of “Countdown,” the Olbermann repeat wins the 25-54 demo about half the time.

Still, looking at the entire year, CNN maintains that Cooper's having his best performance in both total viewers and the demo, again excluding the 2008 election year.

And at 8 p.m., Campbell Brown’s “No Bias. No Bull” — with Roland Martin recently filling in during the host’s maternity leave — has also dropped in recent months.

While averaging 1.26 million viewers in January, according to Nielsen, Brown’s show brought in just an average of just 786,000 in April. And that number is expected to drop again in May, given that the audience on several nights this month fell below 500,000.

Klein acknowledged the recent decline, but said it indicated that the audience missed Brown while away. Whether viewers return should be apparent soon enough: Brown’s back at the anchor desk on Monday night, and the show tapped a new executive producer, Janelle Rodriguez.

Current and former CNN staffers, though, say there’s definite concern inside about how Cooper and Brown are faring against the competition.

Brown’s show has been billed as the antidote to Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor” — which continues to gain viewers post-Inauguration — and Olbermann. But her show's lack of traction begs the question of whether there's a way to bring in ratings without the ideologically slanted hosts that have pulled in partisan viewers on the left and right.

And while being “nonpartisan” is something most journalists strive for — and staffers there stressed that ratings aren’t as important as remaining committed to quality journalism — there’s also a perception of being stuck, in one's words, in “the murky middle.”

“We don’t wake up in the morning with an ideological focus the way the other two clearly do,” the CNN staffer said, in praising the network’s approach. 

“However,” the staffer added, “many of us are unhappy we’re not doing well.”

While Fox News dominates the cable competition — with an audience last month the size of the other two networks combined — CNN had at least been able to claim the No. 2 spot.

But in March, MSNBC overtook CNN for the first time in both total prime-time viewers and the 25-54 demographic. CNN narrowly edged MSNBC in total viewers in April, but again lost the demo.

CNN executives point out that looking year-to-date, the network still leads MSNBC in total prime-time viewers. The competition, however, is focused on more recent trends.

“We’re on track to beat CNN in prime-time for the third month in a row,” said MSNBC spokesperson Jeremy Gaines. “That firmly establishes us as the No. 2 cable-news channel in prime-time.”

 

 It’s not as if MSNBC’s nightly numbers have been rising like Fox’s during the first few months of the Obama administration; rather, both Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow have watched their post-Inauguration numbers soften.

But when it comes to the prime-time metrics on which the industry focuses, MSNBC now has bragging rights. So in the afterglow of the March numbers, MSNBC President Phil Griffin took a shot across the bow at CNN.

“What do they stand for?" Griffin told The Associated Press. "That's their biggest challenge. CNN ain't what it used to be, and that has given us an opening because we stand for something and they don't."

That’s not how Klein sees it.

“People around the world, and here in the United States, trust CNN for reliable information more than any other news organization,” he said. “We are focused on re-earning that trust every day.”

Klein is quick to pull out metrics of his own that emphasize CNN’s overall strength, such as beating MSNBC handily during in total day viewers — by 54 percent since January, according to the network. There’s also been gains by sister-network HLN — formerly Headline News — which even tops CNN in prime-time on many nights. And if you look at May’s numbers, he said, CNN doing its best in the ratings since 2003, excluding the 2008 election year.

“The audience is becoming increasingly accustomed to finding opinions in prime-time,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

While CNN has a larger pool of viewers who sometimes tune in, evident during major news events, Rosenstiel said, “The O’Reilly Factor” is an appointment show with a more loyal nightly following. (Indeed, O’Reilly can bring in four to five times the audience on some nights). “CNN excels," he said, in covering big news stories like the Iraq war or Hurricane Katrina.

Or take election night, when CNN brought in nearly 12.3 million total viewers on, which not only easily beat MSNBC and Fox — with 5.88 and 5.13 million, respectively — combined, but also topped both NBC and CBS.

Such numbers indicate that at times viewers head straight to CNN for the Five W’s of journalism — who, what, when, where and why — giving credence to the network mantra of being “the most trusted name in news.”

And there’s a certain irony in all the hand-wringing because a news network decides upon taking a less ideological approach to the news in prime-time. In the 1990’s, CNN couldn’t shake the “Clinton News Network” nickname among conservatives, and yet now, is viewed as the more moderate network given MSNBC’s prime-time lurch to the left.

John King, host of Sunday’s “State of the Union,” said that there doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario in prime-time programming: CNN can offer compelling programs with news and analysis, while leaving the partisan fights to the guests.

“The person in that chair, even though they were just steering a provocative, spicy conversation, is a serious, objective journalist,” King said of the prime-time hosts. So if there’s a breaking news event, he continued, “you will not have to change the channel.”

King added that if there’s crisis occurs a world away, CNN is better positioned than any cable or broadcast company to cover the story. And beyond just foreign affairs, King rattled off a laundry list of domestic issues the Obama administration will confront, such as the economy, health care, education and most recently, the Supreme Court confirmation process.

“I will take my brand over any other brand in the world as we go down this road,” King said. "[Viewers] want information. They don’t just want volume.”

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