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11/07/2009

CNN: A Network in Crisis

CNN has earned a reputation for being the place to go for major breaking news stories. It has consistently been seen as the most credible of the cable news stations, although its credibility ratings, like those of the other cable networks, have declined in recent years. Its network of global resources and positioning as a newsier alternative to its more opinion-based competitors, Fox News and MSNBC, may be responsible for CNN's heightened credibility scores.

Unfortunately, although CNN may be seen as the station to watch for major breaking news stories, it is also seen as the network that cannot hold onto its audience when these news stories subside. This has led to the dubbing of CNN as the "Crisis News Network." But despite its slumping ratings, CNN President Jon Klein has maintained that the network will avoid the "cartoons" that characterize its rivals and keep its news focus.

While CNN's desire to position itself as a strictly news network is understandable, CNN's executives should be concerned about the Atlanta-based network's ratings during the most recent major news story, the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas. According to the ratings of the day the story broke, CNN finished behind Fox News. In fact, Fox News more than doubled CNN's ratings not just in the 25-54 demographic sought by advertisers, but also in the overall audience. CNN did not just lose to Fox News. It lost badly. And it lost badly on a day on which in which it was supposed to dominate.

CNN's problems, which are not limited to this particular story, are obvious.

1. Most people already know the major headlines of the day by the time it's 8 p.m. Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson, Katie Couric and countless Web sites ensure that people already know what's happening in the world by the time Campbell Brown, Anderson Cooper and Lou Dobbs hit the airwaves. By this time, people are looking for expert opinion and analysis, not a recap of what they already know.

2. Even though CNN President Jon Klein and the network's promos state that CNN is a news network, its hosts blur the lines between news and opinion and end up coming across as less compelling in both areas. Viewers know what they are going to get when they turn on Sean Hannity, Charlie Gibson, Keith Olbermann or Bill O'Reilly. But Campbell Brown, for example, is a newswoman who undermines her own news credibility by giving her opinions. In addition to sabotaging her credibility as a newswoman, she is an uncompelling opinion leader because her newswoman role forces her to temper the opinions she expresses. She is part-Jim Lehrer and part-Chris Matthews, which causes her to be unsuccessful in both endeavors. This is the same problem that hampers Lou Dobbs and, to a lesser extent, Anderson Cooper.

3. There is little continuity in its prime-time lineup. The primary culprit here is Larry King's 9 p.m. show. While King may be a talented interviewer who can land major guests, his show kills the momentum Campbell Brown and Lou Dobbs had built up, thus weakening Anderson Cooper's lead-in. Lou Dobbs may talk about illegal immigration and economic policy at 7. Campbell Brown may talk about the day's political events at 8. Then Larry King interviews some actor or philanthropist at 9. This leaves audiences searching for their remotes. When Anderson Cooper is ready to discuss news and politics at 10, it's as if he has to start from scratch with his audience because the people who wanted to watch King's interview with Richard Simmons or Rhianna are not the people who want to listen to David Gergen's insight regarding presidential leadership.

4. CNN needs new talent, particularly on the liberal side. James Carville and Paul Begala, for example, are clearly veteran political strategists. However, their ties to the Clintons make them very predictable. The end result is too much spin and not enough analysis. Roland Martin is also difficult to watch because he seems out of his depth when discussing serious issues. When providing analysis for last week's election coverage, for example, Martin referred to the Democrats' depressed turnout as "Pookie not going to the polls" or something similarly absurd. He also has an annoying tendency to laugh at his counterparts' arguments during interviews, which is childish. CNN's conservative pundits are more interesting to listen to because they sound more serious, more thoughtful and more professional. Their liberal pundits, however, sound more sophomoric and are less watchable as a result.

This is not to say that there is no place for a news alternative to Fox News and MSNBC. However, CNN needs to decide if it wants to be one or the other with its talent rather than marginalizing them by having them dabble in news and opinion and succeeding at neither. Should CNN seek to create a political opinion show similar to the now-defunct "Crossfire," it should ensure that whoever participates in it is both mature and engaging. There is a market for sophisticated analysis on cable television, as opposed to the rants, mockery and reflexive partisanship that can be found on "Countdown" or "Hannity." However, CNN's analysts, especially on the Democratic and liberal sides, are not disciplined and sophisticated enough to fill this niche.

CNN would be wise to stop pursuing its current formula because it is clearly not working, as the Fort Hood story's ratings indicate. Continuing its current approach threatens its very brand image, and that is more important than any ratings victory.

Copyright 2007-2010 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.