Tuned In

Saturation Coverage: With the Cruise Story, Is CNN Charting a New Course?

The network was on the Carnival Triumph story like flies on, um, the Carnival Triumph.

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Thursday, the stinky, disabled Carnival cruise ship Triumph was crawling back into port in Alabama, its power and sewage systems knocked out by a fire on board. And CNN made no secret that it was going to be on this story like flies on–um, the Carnival cruise ship Triumph. Mid-morning, the network sent out a press release detailing its coverage plans:

The squalid, smelly, steamy cruise ship, which has been without power for days with 4,000 people aboard, is expected to finally limp into port later today. CNN’s Erin Burnett will anchor Erin Burnett OutFront from Mobile, Alabama, where the ship will dock.  Sandra Endo covers the ship’s arrival by helicopter; Victor Blackwell monitors by boat; and David Mattingly and Martin Savidge report from the dock in Mobile. CNN.com/live and the CNN apps will live stream the docking. CNN International will simulcast the arrival later tonight.

On Saturday at 7:30pmET and 10:30pmET, CNN will broadcast “Cruise from Hell: Stranded at Sea,” a 30 minute special reported by Martin Savidge.

CNN (usual disclosure, TIME’s sister company in Time Warner) was good as its word. Thursday afternoon, while competitors MSNBC and Fox were cycling through the other news of the day (they did join coverage when the ship make port at night), newshounds began to notice that CNN was virtually all Poop Cruise, all the time. The details were certainly, shall we say, ripe. There was live video from helicopter, cell phone interviews with passengers, virtual reunions by phone between passengers and their loved ones on shore, running commentary on the legal and business aspects of the disaster for Carnival.

And then there were the pictures. Oh God, the pictures. Brooke Baldwin cut in mid-interview at one point to announce, “We’re finally getting some of the first photographs from inside this cruise”—and the network popped a snapshot of a red bag reportedly containing human waste. From there, the, er, floodgates opened. Baldwin interviewed a passenger who sent video of sewage dripping down the ship’s walls. (“Let me know when we roll. Let’s roll the sewage video.”) The pictures cycled all day, through The Situation Room and into primetime, even staying on picture-in-picture when the network cut to a story about the President’s preschool initiative.

However unappetizing, the Triumph disaster was absolutely a legitimate news story. There was human suffering–in a vacation setting, something all viewers can relate to–there was drama on the high seas, there was health concern, there was corporate scandal. There was, let’s be frank, poop. It wasn’t the only news story, though, and it’s fair to look at the network’s coverage as a hint of how it may change under new head Jeff Zucker, who has made the case that the network needs to broaden its definition of news. CNN’s eternal problem has been that it does well when there’s big news, but there isn’t big news all the time.

One possible answer: take sorta-big news and make it bigger, particularly if you can draw on live footage and exclusive images in an ongoing story. Put another way, the strategy may be that CNN is a TV news network, and therefore its best bet is to go all in on whatever the best TV news story is—the story that best lends itself to arresting images, access and on-the-spot reporting.

This itself is not an entirely new approach. It’s reminiscent of what the cable news networks were doing, say, in the pre-9/11 days of round-the-clock Chandra Levy and shark-attack coverage. It’s a little like what CNN’s sister network HLN has been more successful doing, albeit in the more limited category of seizing on sensational crime cases and making them the top item of news.

And, after all, it was all-in coverage of a big news story, with remarkable visuals and the leveraging of exclusive access, that established CNN as a force in TV news to begin with. That story happened to be the Gulf War, which current anchor Wolf Blitzer covered as a Pentagon correspondent. Yesterday, he was on The Situation Room, talking to cruise passengers about their smelly ordeal, over pictures of a urinal and buckets.

Sometimes you capture the world’s notice covering an air war. And sometimes, the battle is at sea.