Monday, May 24, 2010

Zurawkik: Only 10% of CNNs Revs Come From Primetime U.S. Programming

(image via Francisco Caceres/TIME)

What is to be done about CNN? Media insiders have been debating this for months, offering their own solutions. The exodus of Campbell Brown -- and her candid memo -- will no doubt add to the media navel-gazing.

CNN doesn't quite cater to the right or the left like Fox News and MSNBC respectively. The absence of wingnuttiness is felt in the ratings. David Zurawkik, TV and media critic of The Baltimore Sun was on Howie Kurtz's Reliable Sources yesterday. He made an interesting point about CNN's bottom line. From CNN Transcripts:

Howie: "My first question, what do you think about the way she handled it?

ZURAWIK: I think she handled it very well. And I have a lot of respect for Campbell. I really do. So that's part of it. I think she handled it well, but there's another part of that, Howie.

You know, in the last year now -- this is just the first six months of 2009, the first six months, December to May of this year -- she lost about 38 percent of her audience, overall viewership. And about that much in terms of the key demographic of 25 to 54. That's a lot to lose.

Now, here, what CNN is doing in terms of trying to hold the line in terms of real journalism versus pure opinion, it's not just commendable, it's one of the most important stories I think you and I are covering right now in the history of TV news.

KURTZ: But, look, in recent years CNN has tried Connie Chung, Paula Zahn, Campbell Brown in that 8:00 p.m. Eastern slot, has not been winning the ratings war. Does CNN need stronger personalities? Is it a viable business strategy, when the other guys on the left and right are full of opinion and entertaining to watch, to try to stay in the middle?

ZURAWIK: You know, Jim Walton, the president of CNN International, says what's missing when folks report this story is context. And while I often disagree with news executives, I totally agree with him. CNN -- and, Howie, this isn't just from them. I've checked this out with lots of different media economists who have told me the same thing. CNN has a different business model. It's CNN International. Only 10 percent of their revenue comes from primetime U.S. programming. OK? They can afford not to have great ratings. Fox can't. Fox needs the big ratings they're having.

Interesting. If this is the case, maybe James Poniewozik's remedy for CNN might be the best idea. CNN was, during the 90s, the go-to network for heads of state. CNN came of age during the first Persian Gulf War during the so-called "New World Order." And Fareed Zakaria's GPS is still the smartest hour on television. On Poniewozik's recommendation:

What CNN needs, in other words, are hosts who draw authority not from being insiders or centrists but from challenging guests and calling things as they see them, even if it means braving accusations of bias. This is the strength of people like Fox's Shepard Smith, who's willing to step on conservative toes, and Jon Stewart, a liberal who has nonetheless flogged Obama. It's what CNN (and others) did after the Hurricane Katrina debacle in 2005.

CNN should focus not on both-handedness but on truth. It should let the chips fall where they may, not make sure that the chips, over time, aggregate around the middle. The slogan for my ideal CNN — or any news outlet — would be "The news: whether you like it or not."

But if, as David Zurawkik suggests, ratings are not quite as important as the CNN International brand, this may be just the answer.

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