April 4, 2010

CNN's Remedy is Reality

The story has grown so big that CNN might be able to boost its ratings by reporting its decline.

But while you could spend hours on the blogosphere pondering CNN’s ailment, Dan Kennedy of Media Nation can save a lot of time. His theory, like the thousands analyzing CNN’s ratings, just needs a few tweaks. CNN hasn’t lost its essence, strayed outside its borders, or forgotten its purpose as a non-partisan news provider.

CNN is losing the expectations war.

Fox News and MSNBC viewers know what to expect, while significant doubts exists as to what CNN’s purpose is. Some believe it too neutral, others not neutral enough. Some believe it news, others don’t know what to believe.

From a distance CNN can simply appear too old. Larry King’s audience dropped 43% for the first quarter and 52% in March, down to 771,000 viewers from 1.34 million in 2009. As Kennedy says his time is over, and we will bash Larry. Rambling interviews with pop icons have no use in civil society.

King may also be what news junkies expect most from CNN, and are fleeing accordingly.

Elsewhere Anderson Cooper dropped 42% in viewers and 46% among the 25-to-54-year-old audience, his lowest ratings to date, while Campbell Brown also suffered her lowest rating. Real analysis is not expected of them. For non-informative commentary, the rambling duo of MSNBC’s Keith Oberman and Rachel Maddow is the void to turn.

At least viewers know what they’re getting - opinion, banter, and insults directed at the GOP.

Fox News also continues its rise, fresh off its biggest year in 2009 after Obama’s political opposition turned to an outlet outside the GOP. Greta Van Susteren is up 25% from the previous year, Bill O’Reilly up 28% to 3.65 million views, and Glenn Beck up 50%, fueled by his intentionally controversial actions.

And the ratings will only increase while Fox News is indulged as the villain by MSNBC.

These snap shots indicate that controversy beats real news and that CNN is sinking, but that isn’t necessarily the case. As CNN officials point out, the network is still profitable and well established, though the brand has lost its luster in the digital media age.

It also maintains more total viewers than MSNBC and Fox; the drop comes in the time viewers stay tuned to the channel.

CNN’s web traffic is up as well, although the same can be said for many news organizations. Regardless, its internet viewers dwarf Fox News and MSBC. The New York Times, America’s most visited newspaper online, closed the gap over the last year but remains behind for now.

No, the immediate problem isn’t monetary, viewers, or the choice to stick with the news, but coyness. Being a tool of the US government since the Gulf War, CNN’s analysts are hardly non-partisan or independent, and thus its “hard news” has always been relatively soft.

Take a look at this roster, aside from the bland band of Wolf Blitzer, John King, Anderson Cooper, Larry King, Campbell Brown, who offer no value whatsoever:
Fareed Zakaria
Joe Klien
Paul Begala
James Carville
Roland Martin
David Gergen
Jamal Simmons
Gloria Borger
William Bennett
Many of these figures are Washington insiders. Some are already inside the White House, others past players itching to return. The result is that few challenge the current order, yielding bland political analysis. For instance alleged heavyweight Fareed Zakara blames Arabs for tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, letting Israel and Obama completely off the hook.

The market is opening for more balanced reporting on Israel, but CNN hasn’t chosen to seize it. Compare CNN’s stable to Fox News’ “Great American Panel” and MSNBC’s own string of insiders and CNN looks no different. And isn’t that the point, to be different? CNN is losing that expectations battle.

But it can’t go back to its basics - it must build the basics it never had.

“CNN’s biggest problem may actually be its founding principles,” writes Michael Hirschorn of New York Magazine. “In an era when news flows like water—available everywhere, all the time, instantly—a network devoted to providing headlines topped with a touch of analysis no longer seems quite so useful. If anything, sitting down for 22 minutes to watch a middlebrow mix of politics and weather that’s too proud to dabble more than passingly in the latest Hollywood crack-whoredom seems... inefficient.”

Hirschorn’s statements only become truth when fused with Kennedy’s, but they contain several critical components. He describes CNN’s “founding principle” as “22 minutes of middlebrow politics.” What more could describe its problem? A market still exists for real politics, domestic and international.

CNN just hasn’t filled it.

“What I’d like to see,” says Kennedy, “is a smart, analytical approach that makes sense out of all the news tidbits we accumulate throughout the day, unafraid to call out lies and misrepresentations but nonpartisan in its overall approach.”

Though a large part of America lacks the interest to embrace this kind of news channel, another large part is waiting to devour it. A monopoly on the international news front is particularly up for grabs. Then again, CNN would lose its access if it called out lies and misrepresentations on both political sides.

So it will continue middling down the road, refusing to go all opinion while keeping its opinions out of the news, serving pure vanilla.

“CNN executives have steadfastly said that they will not change their approach to prime-time programs, which are led by hosts not aligned with any partisan point of view,” The New York Times reported after the ratings were released.

CNN’s saving grace is its war trio, and they would go along way were it to reemphasize world events. Currently Michael Ware wastes most of his time schooling other CNN analysts on America’s wars, and receives little overall face time as a consequence. You can notice him usually seated at the end of CNN’s infamously long analyst panels.

He should have his own show.

Nick Robertson is another excellent reporter who, if we were in charge, would be on TV all the time. Peter Bergen has his moments as well, but an NPR interview after President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan speech with Terry Gross paints an unflattering picture of him.

For those with Direct TV or who receive Link TV anyway, a fascinating report on the US media addresses, among many topics, how news organizations continually poll viewers to shape their content. The problem is that “hard news” sites are supposed to lead and shape opinion, not be shaped.

Fox and MSNBC gives its viewers what they want. CNN must give its viewers what they don’t want to see and hear: the real world.

As Kennedy concludes, “Maybe everyone would get off the network’s back about its poor ratings if it were offering not just an alternative to Fox and MSNBC, but one that is compelling and smart.”

We’re waiting.

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