June 12, 2014

FILE – This undated photo provided by the U.S. Army shows Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl. His complicated story does not seem to have caught the attention of CNN like the missing Malaysian airliner story. (AP Photo/U.S. Army)

Hard on the heels of its critically slammed, but ratings friendly, wall-to-wall coverage of missing Malaysian Flight 370, CNN appeared last week to have found another big story to play big around the clock: the Bowe Bergdahl rescue.

CNN’s in-house media critic/reporter, Brian Stelter, opened his Reliable Sources show Sunday with a Bergdahl segment, saying that in the news-about-news arena “it is (the) one obvious lead story.”

But a funny thing happened Monday and Tuesday. The political storm over Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five Taliban detainees and questions over whether he deserted his unit suddenly faded to a middle-of-the-hour topic.

The Bergdahl affair did rally Wednesday with live coverage of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s two-hour appearance before a congressional committee.However, it appears, going forward, that CNN’s coverage will be episodic rather than continuous.

Stelter and a CNN spokesperson declined to discuss how the decision to drop focus on Bergdahl down a notch was made or why its run was cut short after 10 days while the missing plane saga dragged on for six weeks.  But the two provide a tidy update on the evolution of CNN’s big story obsession as the three-way rating competition with Fox and MSNBC has intensified.

USA Today media columnist Rem Reider wrote Monday that the Bergdahl story was “not another fleeting flap du jour” and deserved continued intense coverage.  He observed that there were at least five intriguing story lines — legal, strategic and political — each with important open questions. (The Washington Post weighed in Wednesday with a scoop reporting on Bergdahl’s journal and discharge from the Coast Guard for psychiatric reasons).

On closer inspection, though, Bergdahl was not nearly the match to CNN’s competitive strengths the missing plane had been.

My TV-savvy colleague Al Tompkins told me the missing plane search had a flavor of  mystery in which a now-we-find-out resolution seemed to be coming (though it has yet to arrive and may never).  In that way, Tompkins said, it resembled the appeal of live coverage of big trials which are the staple on CNN’s sister HLN network.

The missing plane story also had no political element, unless you happen to care about the competency of the Malaysian government.  So with more reporting resources and a strong international presence, CNN outflanked its right-left competitors at Fox and MSNBC.

The Bergdahl rescue, by contrast, quickly turned to an intensely partisan issue with Fox advancing an assortment of Republican accusations and MSNBC falling into the posture of defending the Obama administration.

Plus it grew complicated, while the main line of the missing plane story stayed simple.  That’s my best guess, anyhow, of why the story faltered on CNN early this week.

CNN is coy about whether there is a centralized decision-making process that elevates a given story to the super-star massive treatment or determines when wall-to-wall coverage has run its course. Perhaps all that is regarded as a trade secret.

Stelter did provide some hints in one of Reliable Sources earlier segments on whether the missing plane coverage was the wretched excess CNN critics claimed.  During his March 30 show, he said:

CNN, as you know at home, is still concentrating very heavily on this story for both editorial reasons as well as business reasons. Every day I get a spreadsheet with the ratings from the day before. It’s circulated widely at CNN.

And every day, I wonder is there going to be a big drop-off in the ratings because, of course, that would mean a decline in the audience’s interest in this mystery. Well, so far the interest is still very high…

Since the plane disappeared, CNN’s demo ratings have just about doubled. Now, television executives should not be blinded by ratings. But they cannot be blind to them either. That’s the reality of the news business.

The stakes are doubly high in the current cable climate where ratings drive not just advertising revenues but the carriage rates the networks can negotiate with cable providers.

CNN’s editorial and business obsession with big story, 24-7 blowouts dates to its earliest days.  The network’s breakthrough to prominence in the early 1990s was attributed to its coverage of the first Gulf War.  But even earlier it carried the only live network coverage of the Challenger’s 1986 blowup on launch and a continuous broadcast of Baby Jessica’s 1987 rescue after she fell into a well in Midland, Texas..

Ken Auletta wrote in a 1993 New Yorker article about the ratings/big news correlation for CNN.  And during Tom Johnson’s decade-plus run as CEO, CNN offices prominently displayed a longitudinal chart showing ratings spikes and the events that drove them.

Final ratings for Bergdahl week are not in, though Fox may have had a higher volume of coverage (and ratings bump) than CNN.  During the prime of the missing plane story, Fox gained a little additional audience and CNN took some share from MSNBC.  But the driver of its 94 percent audience increase in the first three weeks of the story was viewers shifting to CNN from entertainment options.

Which is to say that jumping hard on the right big story, while complicated by competitive factors with the two partisan cable news channels, remains a compelling business strategy for CNN.  Watch for the network to continue to ride such coverage hard so long as an increased audience rides along.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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