Walton Backs Klein to Reverse CNN Ratings Slide

CNN chief admits disappointment, but will avoid big changes to brand 4/19/2010 01:01:00 AM Eastern

If executives at CNN are worried
about ratings, they’ve
wrapped themselves in a mantle
of non-partisan boosterism and
multi-platform evangelizing.

Jim Walton_CNN“What is missed is that CNN
is more than one domestic network
with a primetime,” says
Jim Walton, president of CNN
Worldwide, who oversees Turner
news division businesses including
CNN International, CNN/
U.S., CNN en Español, CNN.
com and HLN. “So, while one
part of our business, CNN/U.S.
primetime, is having some challenges,
the overall global business
is doing better than fine.”

Walton talks up six consecutive
years of profit growth and the
networks’ reach—a robust digital
operation, presence in more than
200 countries—and notes, as he
has before, that primetime ad
sales on CNN account for less
than 10% of total revenue.

None of this has stanched the
criticism. Walton and CNN/U.S.
President Jon Klein have been
taking incoming fire since the
network’s first-quarter ratings
report landed with a demoralizing
thud. Headlines screamed
“hemorrhage”: Despite big
news events (Haiti, healthcare
reform), CNN primetime
was down 45% year-to-year.
(MSNBC was down 39% and
Fox News was up 19%.)

The media wags, from reality
TV guru Michael Hirschorn to
The New York Times editorial
page, offered advice about fixing
CNN. (Bring back Crossfi re,
offered erstwhile Crossfire panelists
Michael Kinsley and Bill
Press on

Walton admits he’s “disappointed
in the ratings, obviously,”
adding “there’s a lot of focus
on execution.” But he professes
full support for Klein, who is past the midpoint of a four-year contract.
“He’s the man,” Walton says. “He is a great
leader. He is very smart, very creative.

“If we go back to 2008, you would have
thought CNN invented how to cover an election,”
Walton adds. “The coverage was glowing.
Switch to two years later, and well…”

CNN’s upfront presentation to reporters
and buyers last week in New York, during
which Walton and Klein characterized CNN
as a beacon of impartial reporting in a sea
of cable news punditocracy, revived the
ratings-woes narrative and elicited snarky
statements from Fox News and MSNBC.

The advertising community, however, has
been unperturbed about the ratings slide at
CNN (which has coincided with a ratings
surge at sister network HLN). “It will make it
more difficult for CNN to enjoy the historical
premium that the network has been able to
charge,” notes John Rash, a former analyst at
Campbell Mithun. “But assuming they price
competitively, it’s likely that their longtime
advertisers will stick with them.”

But they’re still looking for improvement.
“Buyers are looking for an upward trend in
[CNN’s] ratings, the sooner the better,” says
Horizon Media research chief Brad Adgate.

The midterm elections will bring in more
ad dollars across cable news. CNN is also
bulking up on single-topic, longform programming,
which in the past has generated
lucrative sponsorship deals.

For now, the business model trumps viewer
defection. “CNN is a global brand, not a
national brand,” says independent news analyst
Andrew Tyndall, who declares CNN’s
primetime lineup “awful.”

“But nobody in the world cares whether
people are tuning in to Larry King or not,”
Tyndall adds. “CNN’s future is at,
not Ch. 78 on Time Warner Cable.”