Monday, June 25, 2012

Building a Bigger, Better CNN

It's no secret to anyone following cable news ratings (all five of us) that CNN's ratings are in the toilet. In fact, its regular viewership has been steadily decreasing for a few years now. The numbers released last month paint a grim picture. Let's put that picture into a handy dandy Excel chart.

 Prime time defined as between 8 and 10 PM,  Source

I didn't bother with total viewership because advertisers don't care about how many old people are watching television. They care about people with disposable income whose buying patterns and brand loyalties aren't yet set in stone. Traditionally, advertisers and programmers look at the headline 18-49 demographic rating when discussing rates with networks, but the 25-34 demographic is the most valuable. But I digress.

As you can see, CNN is 3rd behind FNC and MSNBC in average viewership. But there is still a bright spot. Despite its middling ratings, its brand perception is still tops in the cable news game. And its viewership tends to be wealthier and more educated than those watching Fox, although they are remarkably similar with those who watch MSNBC.

This is an age old problem, and I'm going to explain CNN's dilemma using the Chinese concept of "face". Roughly translated to reputation, face is public perception of a person or family in China. When a prominent family, which has a reputation for being wealthy, ceases to be wealthy, often it takes a while before the family's face realigns with the family's current situation. Losing face is often just as painful for the family as losing its wealth.

CNN's face is its reputation as the best damn source of news on TV. Its pioneering of the 24/7 news cycle is still regarded with a mixture of reverence and abomination among the old pros and veterans of the industry. Unfortunately CNN itself bought into the hype, culminating in the breathlessly arrogant slogan "the best political team on television" during the 2008 election cycle.

When a big event happens, people tune into CNN. But it struggles to compete in the big event-less news cycle. That's because the general public regards CNN as a news source, not a narrative source. Unfortunately for CNN, news is fast becoming commoditized while narratives are still differentiated by the audience.

Charismatic media personalities on Fox and MSNBC will command their own organic audience by spinning a narrative using their own considerable oratorical skills. CNN, however, prefers its media personalities to be relatively devoid of actual personality and charisma. CNN prefers to project an image of competence and intelligence at the expense of personality. It's essentially the Mitt Romney of cable news networks.

So we've established that Fox and MSNBC are essentially the Sarah Palins of the news world. The problem is that CNN failed to change as the game changed. News is about being informed. Narratives are about being entertained. And as any political junkie can attest, Sarah Palin is nothing if not entertaining.

As I speak, CNN is in the process of finding its new day-to-day operations chief. And that new chief is going to shake things up. There's an obvious option: Raid and annihilate MSNBC and reposition CNN as the "liberal" news narrative agency to Fox's "conservative" network while maintaining just enough real highbrow reporting and journalism to keep its "premier news source" halo.

 It's the "safe" and risk averse option. It's also the one, in my opinion, that's most likely to fail with the added risk of ruining its brand perception.

Conventional political wisdom is that claiming the middle ground has essentially become impossible. You have to co-opt the left or the right to gain and maintain political power, because while the moderates can swing an election one way or the other, there aren't enough of them to beat back an organized challenger from either the left or the right.

What CNN needs is a game changer. Let Fox and MSNBC have their daily media personalities. CNN needs to get a diverse cast of charismatic narrative-makers to do weekly shows.  By getting a rotating cast of personalities, CNN can vastly expand its audience reach. A diverse cast talking about diverse issues will bring new sets of eyeballs to the TV screen. And try and get as many guest anchors and personalities as possible. Allow them to play off the fixed personalities, a la Real Time With Bill Maher.

Second, the public face of CNN also needs to change. It's old, stodgy, and professional to a fault. That's exactly what you want in Big Event journalism. But it's terrible for the daily news cycle. Bring out the pro's pros for the Big Events, but keep them in cryo until then and go in a new direction for the daily grind. Don't go young, or quirky, or enthusiastic. Go interesting. Challenge the status quo and change the topic of conversation while eventually working it back into a set narrative. Look to the WSJ's A-Hed for an idea of what I'm talking about.

Do that, and CNN will reclaim its mantle as the king of cable news both in terms of face and reality.

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