What’s wrong with CNN? Rewind to 1991, the first night of the First Gulf War. American attack planes are dropping laser-guided missiles on strategic targets in Baghdad. CNN, with Peter Arnett reporting from Baghdad and Bernard Shaw anchoring from the US, owns the story. So much so that then-NBC News President Michael Gartner gave up on his own news division’s coverage of the outbreak of war and ordered them to carry the CNN feed for the remainder of the evening. (A decision, predictably, that led to Mr. Gartner’s eventual dismissal).
CNN was in that position because its founder, Ted Turner, imagined that it might be, someday. When the day came, it wasn’t luck. It was, to alter Branch Rickey’s phrase, the residue of Mr. Turner’s leadership.
Fast forward to last Sunday. There’s an episode of the “Newsroom” airing on HBO. In it, a “Newsroom” producer shows his fellow “Newsroom” staffers how CNN Headline News anchor Nancy Grace and her production staff shamelessly hype and distort the Casey Anthony story for maximum ratings impact. No one at Time Warner (which owns HBO and CNN) said to anyone at HBO: “you can’t say that about another division of this company.” What was the point? What “Newsroom” creator Aaron Sorkin wrote into last Sunday’s episode wasn’t wrong. It was true.
In a little over twenty years, CNN devolved from the most important television news organization in the world to another channel to skim through or skip over.
But don’t take my word for it. Look at the numbers. In the second quarter of this year, CNN’s primetime ratings basically collapsed. The overall numbers were down horribly and the key demos were down horribly. It was so bad that in primetime, CNN was losing to CNN Headline News, which is a little bit like the Yankees losing to their farm team in
Columbus Scranton, every night.
On the day that this ratings news hit the wire, a ritual sacrifice was performed: the executive in charge, Jim Walton, “retired.” Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent, to whom CNN reports, was tasked with the assignment of finding a replacement. The search, as they say, is ongoing.
On one level, CNN’s woes are “first world problems.” CNN Worldwide is profitable (Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes told analysts it would earn $600 million this year). CNN International is respected, widely watched and has the advertising rate cards that prove it. The network in general has a boatload of talented, dedicated, hard-working employees. If war breaks out in two places at once, CNN is probably the only US television news organization that can actually cover both in any kind of depth. And it has, at least in theory, access to the vast journalistic capabilities of the Time Warner magazine group and the (documentary) film-making capabilities of HBO. In short, it possesses the two essential elements of media success: richness and reach.
What it doesn’t have is leadership. It isn’t likely to get it any time soon.
The internal politics of Time Warner explain why. Most of the various division heads would like to have Mr. Bewkes’s job. They can’t, of course, challenge Mr. Bewkes directly. Bad manners, corporate suicide. They can, however, moan about the sorry state of one of the company’s flagship brands (CNN) to selected friends in the press. And they can “offer to help” fix this problem. And make that known to selected friends in the press. All the while, they will be doing everything they can to ensure that a suitably pliant executive is found to replace Mr. Walton. Even Mr. Kent, to whom the new executive will report, has an interest in finding someone who won’t overshadow him.
So the internal politics seem destined to produce more of the same. Without strong leadership, the fiefdoms maintain their power, the supposed “stars” stay in their places (not one hour of Wolf Blitzer, two!) and the network’s programming drifts along. Yes, the US ratings are embarrassing in primetime. Yes, viewership is actually down in an election year. Yes, the website isn’t nearly as good as it could be. Yes, but so what?
This seems to be CNN’s answer to most everything: “yes, but so what?” Consider Erin Burnett, who could be a superstar if properly produced. What does CNN do with her? They give her a not-very-well-produced show in the 7pm slot. To no one’s surprise, it doesn’t do very well.
The thinking, apparently, is that tinkering with the primetime line-up of Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan would be too risky. The exact opposite is true. It couldn’t possibly be less risky to move Ms. Burnett to 9pm and build a real show around her. Almost no one watches Piers Morgan. He is universally un-beloved.
Yes, but so what?
Mr. Bewkes would be well-advised to blow this all up and start fresh. He might begin by floating a story that he is considering hiring someone like Roger Ailes to come fix things at CNN. He might even suggest hiring Mr. Ailes himself, just for fun. That would certainly get everyone’s attention.
The prospect of Mr. Ailes arriving at CNN Headquarters in New York with his wild-eyed band of FNC Hell’s Angels is probably too good to be true. Sad to say. But say this for Mr. Ailes: if he ever did get the job, he would say: “we’re taking this beach, in this way and if you don’t want to help, then get the hell out of the way. ” He would actually lead.
CNN needs that kind of leadership. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter. But CNN is an important resource, nationally and internationally. CNN actually matters.
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