Tuned In

This Was CNN: Where Have Its Viewers Gone?

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CNN is a sister company to TIME within Time Warner, so let me be unambiguous and without corporate favor when I say that its latest round of primetime ratings are in the dumpster. Bill Carter of the New York Times reports that for the first time, CNN will finish October in fourth place among cable-news networks in the advertiser-followed demographic. [Update: There is some question about “for the first time.” Inside Cable News notes that Carter reported CNN fourth in April earlier. However, it’s not clear from the pieces whether Carter is referencing the same demographics in the two instances.] The network even lost to itself, in that sister net HLN beat it out.

Whenever you write anything unflattering about any cable network’s ratings, its people manage to massage the numbers in some exculpatory manner to show that, by some measure, things are better, or can be made to appear thus. And sure enough, Carter notes that CNN says “the network continues to draw more viewers than all its competitors except Fox News when all hours of the day are counted.” Which may be true by some measure–not sure the demographic or the gauge of “viewership” they’re using–but the trend lines are clear. The channel has to be asking itself how it became the fourth name in news.

Though CNN has gone through various reinventions over the years, it likes to return to the idea that “the news is the star,” so in periods like this it can try to blame the news. During the election and debates its numbers were up, and they spike when there’s breaking news. But absent news, opinion drives primetime, and Fox, and by a lesser degree MSNBC, have been beating it there. Fox in particular has rocketed since the election, since Obama’s election and governing have given its various conservative hosts new zest and full-throated focus.

So maybe it’s about opinion to a certain extent, but it’s not as if CNN has ignored that. It’s tried to brand Anderson Cooper as a voice, but a nonpartisan one, and tried to fan a following for Campbell Brown as—well, whatever exactly “No Bias, No Bull” meant. But it turns out there’s not much of a market for the passionate advocacy of no political position in particular. Meanwhile, Larry King can still get an audience behind news, but even in 2009 only so many celebrities can die and only so many Balloon Boys can hide in the attic.

All of which, I suggests that CNN either ignore the ratings and stick to its knitting, or that it change—going a more high-minded, newsy route or a more blatantly opinionated one. So two questions. (1) What do you think CNN should be doing in primetime? And (2) be honest now—if they took your advice, would you actually watch?