When I watched CNN abroad recently, the news coverage was impressive, with Christiane
Amanpour, Anderson Cooper, and others on the Israeli/Gaza conflagration, and
quality commentary from Fareed Zakaria. CNN International deserves the respect
it has achieved over the decades. But on the home front, the highly visible
evening line-up, which has been subject to constant tinkering, has limited
impact, except when there is very big news that takes advantage of CNN's on-the-ground
expertise. For example, my friend, Ben W. Heineman Jr., was right when he wrote in praise of CNN's fact-filled election night coverage.
What was striking about the hoopla around the Zucker appointment was the
paradox in CNN's current circumstances. Headlines and stories said CNN is
"struggling" and in a "ratings tailspin." But it was also reported that CNN
Worldwide is on its way to its most profitable year ever, with over $600
million in profits from revenue streams in advertising and subscription fees
from cable systems and affiliated stations. Can this complex of disparate but
inter-related companies with the CNN name, vying with so many other outlets and
still making huge profits, really be in such trouble?
The answer appears to be that the management of Time-Warner, CNN's parent,
led by CEO Jeffrey L. Bewkes, believes, as he put it bluntly, that CNN "can do
a better job of attracting and retaining viewers." For all its rising revenues,
CNN in the United States has about one third of the average 1.2 million viewers
of Fox News, which also has soaring profits -- over $860 million in 2011,
according to the Pew Research Center. It is one of News Corp.'s gems, and its
head, Roger Ailes, is nonpareil as a producer of right-wing television. On the
left, MSNBC also has a bigger average audience (about 500,000) than CNN/U.S.,
while its revenues benefit from its place at the NBC/Universal conglomerate
alongside CNBC and NBC News (where the wildly lucrative Today show has lately fallen behind ABC's Good Morning America in head-to-head ratings).
Among the ironies of CNN's position is that it has the capacity and
resources in its leading news personalities, correspondents, and top producers
to be a really formidable news organization. But nonpartisan, nonstop news -- newsmaker
interviews and analysis of the traditional kind that was the vision of Ted
Turner and his executive team when Cable News Network was founded in 1980 -- is no
longer drawing sufficient viewership to the CNN/US channel, while right-wing
and left-wing talk is booming. At risk for Time/Warner are those enormous profits
if the cable systems and others who pay to play on CNN decide it isn't worth
the prices they have been paying.
In his first memo to the CNN staff, Zucker said that he is "committed to
maintaining CNN's core mission." In fact, he said "CNN's values are more
distinct and more important than ever in today's media landscape. At the same
time, we will have to continue to evolve. I don't have all the answers. No one
does." Yet, he declares, "the opportunities are limitless."