Will CNN Have Last Laugh Like ABC News?

CNN’s cuts come four years after ABC News cut 25 percent of its staff; the Disney-owned company now has No. 1 morning show and other programs on the rise

Last Updated: October 18, 2014 @ 2:19 PM

Lost in the flurry of news and chatter about CNN’s widespread layoffs is what happened just four years ago a few blocks up the street in New York City.

ABC News, one of the big three broadcast news networks, laid off 25 percent of its workforce in 2010. Those cuts spread across the entire network, domestically and internationally, from signature broadcast shows to bureaus.  All in all, there were about 350 jobs lost.

Also read: New ABC News Chief Says No More Layoffs Expected

At the time, then-network president David Westin told staff: “We have much yet to do as we move to make full use of what new technology makes possible and we implement fully the structural and organizational changes that we’ve begun throughout the division. The full extent of these changes will be realized over the summer and into the fall.”

Also read: ABC News’ David Muir Reveals Biggest Inspirations on Kimmel: Peter Jennings Was James Bond of News

Fast forward over four years later, ABC has the number one morning program in “Good Morning America.” On Sunday mornings, “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos has been on a strong run, seeing its fair share of first place finishes in total viewers and the advertising-coveted 25-54 demo. The evenings are also seeing a surge, helmed by hotshot new anchor David Muir. “World News Tonight” with Muir has already taken the lead over “Nightly News” with Brian Williams in the younger demo and is closing the gap in total viewers. A substantial Nielsen screw-up actually gave ABC its first evening victory in total viewers in five years for the week of September 29. When the mistake was corrected, revisions showed Muir trailed Williams by 170,000 total viewers.

Also read: Nielsen’s Colossal Screw-Up Strips ABC’s David Muir of Ratings Win Over NBC’s Brian Williams

The same media critics debating the future prospects of CNN this week did the same thing when ABC made similar cuts. Sure, the competition ABC has surpassed is far different than what CNN is up against. In NBC and CBS, ABC squares off against similar operations. Mornings are a mix of hard news and puff, while evenings are traditional hard news broadcasts.

On the other hand, CNN is a 24/7 news network up against a completely different field: a left-of-center MSNBC and a right-of-center Fox News. Fox has dominated for over a decade serving a previously untapped conservative audience. Most recently, MSNBC has struggled, but before that, had found success with liberally-laced programming. Interestingly, both networks have far less resources and staffing than CNN.

Also read: CNN, HLN Layoffs Day 2: ‘Crossfire,’ ‘Unguarded’ With Rachel Nichols, and ‘Sanjay Gupta MD’ Canceled

“ABC News and CNN believe they can effectively compete for viewers with fewer staff in order to maintain their profit targets,” former CBS Vice President and Fox News president Joe Peyronnin told TheWrap.

For CNN, part of that profit strategy is doubling down on original series. Both Turner CEO John Martin and network President Jeff Zucker have vowed to double the amount of original series in the lineup by 2015 (that’s two months from now for those without a calendar nearby). The strategy has merit: “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” with Mike Rowe marked the highest-rated original series debut for CNN in the younger demo recently, with 507,000 viewers and within reach of one million total viewers. Other series like “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”–which is also able to be binge-watched on Netflix–and “The Hunt” with John Walsh have also seen ratings success.

“CNN’s programming changes may draw additional viewers, but, depending on execution, the increase will not be significant,” Peyronnin added. “If the execution is strong, CNN may consistently get higher ratings than MSNBC, which has lost viewers recently. Even with CNN’s new programming strategy, Fox News will be the dominant news leader in cable.”

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A CNN insider who spoke with TheWrap agreed, but said the goal is not to beat Fox News, as the reality of today’s TV news business makes it clear: straight news is not as sexy as ideologically-laced programming during non-breaking news. Instead, CNN will own tailor-made breaking news situations like missing planes, natural disasters, and terror alerts, while creating appointment viewing the rest of the time; the kind of viewing the network can repeat–and monetize–over and over again.

When he became network president, Jeff Zucker said CNN would “broaden the definition of what news is.” Whether the network will be able to broaden its ratings with less entertainment, medical, sports, and news gathering resources remains to be seen.

ABC News and CNN both declined to comment for this story.