If executives at CNN are worried about ratings, they’ve wrapped themselves in a mantle of non-partisan boosterism and multi-platform evangelizing.
“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 Politico.com.)
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 CNN.com, not Ch. 78 on Time Warner Cable.”