4 Suggestions to Help Save CNN
Photo Credit: tinkerbrad via Flickr
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This story originally appeared at Salon.
CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton announced last week that he’s stepping down at the end of the year because CNN’s ratings are awful and show no signs of improving. Announcing that you’re resigning because you’re failing at your job — or, in Walton’s words, because “CNN needs new thinking” — but giving five months notice doesn’t really suggest much urgency on anyone’s part, but this is about as close as our modern executive class gets to taking responsibility for poor performance, so good on Walton, I guess.
Here’s one pertinent fact, though: Walton, whose purview includes HLN and CNN International, has actually been a reasonably successful executive on one very important sense – CNN makes a lot of money. Even though its ratings are atrocious, especially in prime time, CNN is raking it in for Time Warner thanks to its huge international presence and the consistently high carriage fees it can charge to cable and satellite providers. Prime time ad revenue is a small portion of CNN’s revenues. They’d like to make much more money from their prime time lineup, obviously, but the network isn’t in danger of going bankrupt any time soon. In that sense, CNN doesn’t actually need “saving.”
But the CNN “brand” is in trouble, and the flagship channel’s horrible ratings are an embarrassment to the entire organization.
CNN will always be the channel people turn on when wars and horrible disasters happen. The “trick” is getting people to also want to watch it when there aren’t hundreds or thousands of people somewhere in the world currently in mortal peril. Now, I am not a “cable television programming expert,” but I have a lotof Twitter followers, so I think I know a little something about what people like. Here are my suggestions for saving CNN from irrelevance:
Experiment with programming
CNN’s problem goes to its very core and to the identity it’s sought ever since the rise of Fox News, on its right: CNN is the channel for people who don’t want to watch the other channels! That’s a stupid strategy. Just as there’s no real electoral constituency for “No Labels” centrist politicians, there isn’t really a secret mass of people who want to watch “shouting about politics” shows that don’t already have a “side” in the fight. “Political junkies” and liberals will watch MSNBC, and angry, old right-wingers will watch Fox. There are people who like good television and good journalism, and those two things are even occasionally compatible. (“60 Minutes” isn’t perfect, but it’s about as good as non-public TV news gets in the United States, and it’s phenomenally successful.)
The single smartest move CNN has made in years was their partnership with VICE, not just because VICE is “hip” and popular with “the kids,” but because VICE gives them exclusive international reportage that’s also phenomenally entertaining. And, of course, they don’t place VICE’s content on their cable channel. They just host VICE’s specials on CNN.com. There’s no reason VICE documentaries couldn’t air in prime time as heavily promoted event programming. There’s no reason CNN couldn’t just air documentaries and specials all the time! They have the budget and the resources for it. Having 90 percent of the day’s programming be people in the studio talking to other people in that studio or a different studio is a massive failure of imagination.
The majority of the “best political team on television” and the prime time lineup needs to go, immediately. Hundreds of pundits and analysts sitting in various combinations at oddly tall tables or game-show-style panels is actually not good analysis or TV. Just a few thoughtful people to provide context and commentary would be sufficient, and then maybe some smart people having conversations, instead of former or current political hacks having talking point competitions. No one ever needs to hear from David Gergen again, by the way.