Thursday, April 08, 2010

Saving CNN

Politico took a look at the ratings and thought the guys at the most trusted name in news could use a little help:

How to fix CNN

The future of CNN, never exactly bright the past couple of years, suddenly looked dire this week when ratings came out showing a 40 percent decline in prime-time viewers since 2009.

Jon Klein, the network's president, has consistently defended its down-the-middle news strategy, despite the increasingly large ratings leads opened up by MSNBC and particularly Fox, with their ideological slants and big personalities.

So is it time for a radical rethinking of “the most trusted name in news,” the network of Larry King Anderson Cooper, Campbell Brown and Wolf Blitzer? We asked a dozen or so prominent media watchers, former industry executives and CNN personalities for their recommendations

Both Jay Rosen and Michael Hirschorn posted longer discussions of the question on their websites.

What CNN Should Do With Itself in Prime-Time
A media beat reporter asked me if I had any advice for CNN about what to do in prime-time. Just so happens I do. Ditch the View from Nowhere but don't go aping your rivals. Here's my alt line-up for CNN from 7 to 11 pm.

Don't Cry for CNN
Thirty years ago, CNN, now in decline, was as revolutionary as Google. It had a pretty good run.

The blogger Spook86 at In from the Cold also had an astute post that raised a couple of relevant points not made by Calderone’s panel.

Like most formerly great organizations, CNN’s Big Problem grows out of a bunch of smaller problems.

1. It has rejected or forgotten some of the things that made it great in the first place.

2. At the same time, it clings to useless artifacts of its glory days.

3. It has been slow to cope with changes in the external environment (technology, competitors, demographics). This may be the inevitable consequence of being the market leader: there is no where to go but down. As I’ve argued before, outside changes occur more rapidly than organizations can transform themselves or even understand what is happening outside their office walls.

4. The people who lead CNN are woefully out of touch with their customers (current, former, and potential) and how those customers perceive their product.

Hirschorn reminds us of what CNN once represented:

it was, in terms of cultural impact, the Google of its day. Its gonzo “fluid news” style, low-cost methods, and disdain for the woolly orthodoxies of traditional TV news- gathering terrified the big three, and attracted their most forward-thinking journos.

Spook86 makes the important point that this broadcast style grew out of a new business model and it was driven by the personnel strategy of that business model.

When the cable network made its debut 30 years ago, it offered extended newscasts in prime time and even late night. If there was breaking news, CNN was inevitably on top of it, and stayed with the story for hours (or days) on end.

And more importantly, the network generally played it straight. Back in those days, most of the anchors and producers were graduates of local stations, more concerned about getting the story on the air than providing a particular a particular slant or perspective. The network also recognized that some outlets could do a better job in covering a story and occasionally carried newscasts or special reports from its local affiliates

Now CNN uses the same obsolete model that has failed at CBS, ABC, and NBC. The anchor as star attraction just does not seem to work for anybody any more. Not for CBS with Katie Couric and not for CNN with Anderson Cooper, Rick Sanchez, et. al.

Spook86 thinks the problem started with the first Gulf War (usually seen as the start of CNN’s glory days):

But all of that changed with the first Gulf War, when CNN's round-the-clock coverage was a media sensation. With critical acclaim (and a bigger audience), the cable news outlet began acting like the rest of the MSM. Many of the original anchors and reporters were replaced by talent that previously worked for the broadcast networks. And the long slide began.

The Gulf War had another deleterious effect on CNN’s mindset. They fell in love with and then became addicted to “LIVE--Breaking News” and real time on-the-scene reporting. They tried to cover everything the way they “covered” Baghdad the first night the bombs fell.

Unfortunately for CNN, most stories do not demand that sort of treatment and in many cases it is counterproductive. The technology is expensive (driving up the CNN’s costs) while the resulting stories are often disjointed, devoid of background and context, and plagued by technical glitches that annoy any sentient creature who actually cares about the matter under discussion.

(The addiction to “Live!” Real Time Reporting left CNN vulnerable to opportunistic infections such as Twitter Fever. Why does the “most trusted name in news” waste its viewer’s time with Fabgrl98’s 140 character effusions on the economic consequences of cap-and-trade?)

Worst of all, the audience is unimpressed. The more CNN strove for immediacy and spotlighted their commitment to journalism, the more viewers fled to its talk radio competition (FNC and MSNBC) with their canned talking points.

CNN probably blames the audience for rejecting quality journalism. Hirschorn explains why CNN is wrong:

In an era when news flows like water--available everywhere, all the time, instantly--a network devoted to providing headlines topped with a touch of analysis no longer seems quite so useful. If anything, sitting down for 22 minutes to watch a middlebrow mix of politics and weather that’s too proud to dabble more than passingly in the latest Hollywood crack-whoredom seems … inefficient. What was very urgent in 1980 or on 9/11 no longer seems crucial when we’re drowning in news. CNN’s decline may be, in Wall Street analyst-speak, secular as opposed to cyclical.

The Web makes CNN look foolish as it covers a breaking story. By the time a story is an hour old, a reader can learn more by clicking her mouse than she can from the breathless irriatated gushing droning snarky ignorant knowing monologues of CampbellAndersonWolfRickJohn.

On a normal newsday, the audience already knows what CNN strives to tell them. They’ve been reading about it since noon. At least Fox and MSNBC offer more than an abbreviated recapitulation; amid the flood of partisan talking points there is a dollop of smart commentary. CNN seems constitutionally afraid of smart partisans so their commentators tend toward the Brooksianglib, boring, and ill-informed or the Carvillianclownish, irritating, and unthinking.

I actually think CNN could rise again. There is a substantial audience for non-fiction television that currently ignores the news channels. Networks like National Geographic, The History Channel, The Military Channel, A&E, manage to attract an audience interested in factual stories and biographies. CNN could try to become their television news source.

CNN’s biggest millstone lies within their corporate headquarters. As with most companies, the men who must solve the problems are the same ones who created them. No surprise that success is rare.


But it’s always easy to pontificate when you’re not weighed down by decades of process, staff, relationships, and cash flow. Would you want to tell Larry King it’s time to retire?


Add to that the problem of convincing a skeptical, information saturated audience that CNN really is worthy of their time and trust.

Small changes are not going to help CNN. Big, sweeping changes cause too much pain.

Sounds like a recipe for "catastrophic failure" as described by Cohen and Gooch.

Catastrophic failure produces an eerie calm at the highest levels of an organization-- a calm which grows out of disbelief, helplessness, and cognitive overload. Because of this, the end is no fiery Gotterdammerung. Instead, there is resignation and surrender to the inevitable.

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