Second in TheWrap’s year-end cable news series
Media critics have been writing CNN’s obituary since late 2012, when the network flailed in third place behind MSNBC. Ratings had been on a steady downslide for years, and the hiring of former NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Zucker as president of CNN Worldwide in January was seen as both bold and risky, given Zucker’s scorecard at NBC.
But despite an unpredictable year at CNN that has seen a regime change, reporting blunders, and wild ratings swings, the oldest cable news network is poised to end 2013 on an uptick as the only one to see year-over-year growth from 2012 – an election year that benefitted from higher ratings overall.
Now, almost a full year into Zucker’s reign, the network is No. 2 in total day viewership and in the key 25-54 demographic. However, CNN didn’t earn its ratings boost from Zucker’s higher profile overhauls of daily news shows which had initially been considered his signature moves, but rather from unexpected, out-of-the-box programming that’s far afield from the network’s traditional fare.
“CNN is in a very different place now than it was last year,” CNN’s Senior Vice President of Communications Allison Gollust told TheWrap in a phone interview.
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” which premiered in April, is currently the network’s top rated show, and it airs on normally dead Sunday nights, not weeknights. Fellow unscripted series “Morgan Spurlock: Inside Man” has not been far behind.
The network’s biggest hit was CNN Films’ “Blackfish,” which pulled in 21 million viewers across all airings on the network. The documentary premiered at the 2013 Sundance International Film Festival and is on the shortlist for an Academy Award.
It’s more of these kinds of shows that Zucker is calling for in 2014.
“CNN will always continue to be a leader in breaking news; our numbers propel us in that category,” Gollust said. “[But] our audience responds to the ebb and flow of news, so that’s one of the reasons why the strategy is a smart one to try to get more show coverage when there’s not breaking news.”
Zucker suggested in an interview with Capital New York in early December that personality-based analysis shows as well as more unscripted programs and docs will fill the schedule.
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“Yes, there will be more and, yes, they will not just be on Sundays,” Zucker said.
“I think it will expand past just the weekends, and so there’s a little piece of news for you… This is a primetime play. It’s too expensive to confine it to weekends.”
By comparison, the news side seems almost an afterthought. CNN suffered some reporting embarrassments, first in March during the Boston Marathon bombing investigation when correspondents claimed that an arrest had been made and then refused to backtrack or apologize when that information had been clearly disproven.
Coverage of the Steubenville, Ohio rape case was criticized as being disproportionally sympathetic to the teenage defendants. Reporter Poppy Hollow, who was in the courtroom, repeatedly spoke about how devastating the conviction was for lives of these two promising boys, without much consideration for the life of the young woman they raped.
The massive makeover of CNN’s morning – accompanied by a large marketing campaign complete with a catchy original Alicia Keys song – as well as dayside news changes have yet to yield substantial ratings returns. Morning show “New Day” with former ABC newsman Chris Cuomo premiered in June, and since has cut the gap with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and improved the time slot year-over-year. But starting from where CNN was last year, that’s not necessarily reason enough to pop the champagne.
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The resurrection of “Crossfire,” which was canceled in 2005, seemed to be an effort to trap some of the lightning in a bottle that is Fox News’ “The Five,” but so far the half-hour pundit show has had middling ratings at best.
The acquisition of ABC’s Jake Tapper at the end of 2012 has bore the best fruit, as the veteran newsman has moved into second place in the 4 p.m. hour with “The Lead.”
Meanwhile, the once-reliable primetime line-up has struggled. “Anderson Cooper 360” saw its lowest ratings in two years just a few weeks ago, and “Piers Morgan Live” has never quite taken off after Larry King left the hour.
The network acknowledges primetime needs immediate attention.
“It’s about figuring out the right strategy,” Gollust said. “Primetime will be a place that we spend some time.”
Still, Gollust emphasizes that CNN’s bread and butter is breaking news.
“We have the utmost consideration for breaking news; that is never going to change about CNN,” she said. “The minute breaking news happens, a bomb goes off in the Boston Marathon … we literally can flip a switch and be in breaking news mode.”
As Zucker finishes out his first full year at the helm of CNN Worldwide, there’s a feeling that nobody knows what he’s going to do next. But a CNN insider tells TheWrap that the newsrooms feel reinvigorated for the first time in years.
“The sense is that everything’s on the table, and that’s what makes it exciting.”