CNN ratings drop not bad (yet) for its bottom line

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CNN's April ratings were its lowest in a decade. CNN says that isn't much of a problem: The network's worst ratings are in prime time, and "Keep in mind, the advertising revenue that we bring in for the prime-time revenues for CNN U.S. is less than 10% of the overall revenue," Jim Walton, the president of CNN Worldwide, told Keach Hagey. CNN makes about half of its money through subscriber fees paid to it from cable operators.

But weak ratings, one brave unnamed cable executive told Hagey, are "leverage for us." And they're also an opening for executive shakeups, none of which have touched Walton, programming changes, and lots and lots of unsolicited advice.

Brian Stelter writes that CNN is on track to post its highest-ever operating profit this year. "They just made so much money that they didn’t have to change," another brave unnamed cable executive tells him. The network has an "emergency room" problem, Stelter says: "When elections and explosions happen, people tune in to CNN, the same way they hurry to a hospital when they think they are having a heart attack. But people tend not to linger in either place." So far, no programming changes have stanched the bleeding.

So maybe it's the cable's stated mission to be nonpartisan? After all, it's long ago been passed by Fox in prime time ratings, and Stelter writes that it's been behind MSNBC for 22 of the last 24 months. Surely the channel's unwillingness to mix it up with guests is repelling viewers? That's Cenk Uygur's theory; the Current TV host says CNN is "doing so poorly I might even catch them on Current," a statement as bold as Breitbart News' assertion that "Fox slants slightly conservative."

New York University journalism Professor Jay Rosen has long tended a sideline business of pounding CNN for wimping out. He, like Jon Stewart, says CNN's issue isn't so much the emergency room one as the "CNN leaves it there" problem: The net lets people spout off, doesn't challenge them, and goes to commercial. That's extremely frustrating for informed news viewers, who might flip channels when they hear obvious twaddle go unchecked. Rosen's also written about his dream CNN prime-time lineup and composed a listicle about five fixes CNN could make. They're classics of the how-to-fix CNN genre, one authoritatively surveyed by Michael Calderone in March 2010.

There's also the existential threat to cable news posed by the Internet (and the increasing meaninglessness of "breaking news," still CNN's bread and butter). As media analyst Ken Doctor told Alex Sherman: “It’s so easy to get news now. When you build an hour around a person, that’s more effective than building around news programming itself.”

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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