Skip to comments.An anniversary no one at CNN is ready to celebrate
Posted on 01/26/2003 10:30:01 AM PST by Sub-Driver
An anniversary no one at CNN is ready to celebrate
Sunday January 26, 2003
By DAVID BAUDER AP Television Writer
NEW YORK (AP) This week marks an anniversary the people at CNN would prefer is observed quietly very quietly.
It was one year ago that Fox News Channel first beat CNN in the ratings, toppling the network that invented cable news and had enjoyed a monopoly for most of its existence.
The pecking order not only hasn't changed since then, Fox's lead is wider. This month's unexpected resignation of CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson and the exit of six correspondents has people asking, once again: What's wrong with CNN?
There's no simple answer. But facing a challenger with confidence and a clear sense of mission has only amplified the lack of those two qualities in CNN.
``CNN's problems go deeper,'' said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief and now a professor at George Mason University. ``They cut to the question of what is CNN? What is their audience? And how are they talking to that audience? I think CNN has created its own fog of war and they're getting lost in it a little bit.''
Executives at CNN tend to get exasperated when their network is defined narrowly in terms of its ratings race with Fox News Channel.
Jim Walton, who will replace Isaacson (who leaves to join a think tank) this spring as CNN chairman, said he has four ways that he will measure success. Ratings is one yardstick, and the others are the quality of CNN's journalism, the network's profitability and the people who work there.
Morale is a difficult thing to pin down, of course, but suddenly telling longtime correspondents that their services are no longer required and having security escort them out the door can't help.
The contracts of Brooks Jackson, Allan Dodds Frank, Mark Potter, Bruce Francis and James Hattori were not renewed at the end of 2002, and Garrick Utley decided against staying. Knowledgeable observers say the moves were a combination of cost-cutting and a recognition that the veterans worked better with prepared reports instead of live stand-ups, which CNN is emphasizing more.
Most experts say CNN is still able to charge more for commercials than Fox, but that gap is narrowing rapidly.
A study last year by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 37 percent of respondents believed all or most of what they saw on CNN, compared to 24 percent on Fox. When a big story breaks, like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, more people are likely to turn to CNN for information.
A war with Iraq will offer a high-profile test of whether that's still the case, and Fox has launched an aggressive ad campaign claiming it's trusted more because it's watched more.
``If it were just about higher ratings, we would put Bill Hemmer in a tight, white T-shirt and our numbers will go up,'' Walton said. ``But I'm not sure it would be good for the brand.''
But if not ratings, what was Connie Chung's aggressively promoted interview last week with ```The Bachelorette's' Rejects'' all about?
CNN likes to claim it's above the fray, but many of the changes in the network's on-air look over the past few years more colorful graphics, vibrant appearance and frequent news alerts reflect Fox's influence.
CNN's emphasis on establishing beachheads in its schedule with personalities has given birth to strong, informative programs helmed by Aaron Brown, Wolf Blitzer, Judy Woodruff and Paula Zahn.
Yet the schedule, described as ``patchy'' by media analyst Tom Wolzien of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., has its holes: an awkward ``Talkback Live,'' an increasingly shrill ``Crossfire'' and the tabloid-driven Chung hour. Even perennial Larry King, or at least his guests, are beginning to show their age.
The viewership gap between Fox and CNN is widest in prime-time: an average of 1.32 million viewers to 930,000 in the last three months of 2002.
``The ratings success Fox has had is a reflection of what Fox has created for itself which is a voice, a buzz and identity that is consistent throughout the day, lifted by strong personalities and magnified by a strong leader,'' Sesno said. CNN's management structure has been confusing and unwieldy since the departure of founder Ted Turner. Teya Ryan runs CNN's main network, and she reports to Walton, who reports to Turner Broadcasting head Jamie Kellner, who reports to bosses at AOL Time Warner.
There's no question Roger Ailes is in charge at Fox News, as succinctly pointed out by Newsday columnist Verne Gay recently.
``Historically, the strongest news organizations have been dictatorships,'' Wolzien said.
CNN has also lost the public relations war, he said. The pugnacious Ailes has no problem going toe-to-toe with his rivals and, as a former political adviser, knows how to run a campaign. CNN has shied away from taking him on, and Walton indicates this isn't likely to change.
Much of the negative attention is unavoidable. When you have the field to yourself and that suddenly changes, your faults clearly come into view. People notice.
``It's hard to be on the front lines of the revolution when the revolution stops,'' Sesno said. ``Then what do you do? The revolution is over and it's settled into trench warfare. You have to know who you're fighting and where you're going and have an objective that's clear.''
Some may be interested in that.