Can CNN Make Water-Cooler News That Works for the Middle?

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New CNN president Jeff Zucker, as The Washington Post's Paul Farhi explains in a lengthy profile today, is a "hyper-competitive" but patient man who will try anything and everything to "blow up the place" and get you to watch the still struggling network without alienating the base — including trotting out a designer impostor version of The View. The thing is, Zucker's ongoing battle to pull CNN out of fourth place (behind HLN, even while impersonating it, too) might mean changing up the one most important thing the former news leader has going for it: advertisers who see CNN as a "safer place to be" than Fox and MSNBC.

Zucker and CNN's brass have declined interviews in the four-and-a-half months since he took over, but Farhi has perhaps the best and most fair analysis of the "sensitivity of the situation" surrounding the experiment that has been Zucker's new CNN: the departures, the new blood, the poop cruise, the sinkholes, and how Anderson Cooper's head has avoided the chopping block. Oh, and the ratings. The ratings aren't great yet. Not even really that good. Farhi explains that rat race—and why Zucker's potentially "fundamental departure" from safe CNN as we knew it is so important in the first place:

The old CNN was bypassed in sizzle (and audience ratings) by Fox News Channel and MSNBC long ago. On most nights, safe-and-serious CNN finishes fourth in the cable news rankings, behind even little HLN, a sister network that specializes in lurid trials and whose star is Nancy Grace, cable’s Cruella de Vil.

CNN's dueling struggle with ratings and success on Madison Avenue is not unlike a student who flunks pop quizzes: the network keeps forgetting its homework with the little things that matter, even if it's ultimately passing the final that really matters. So it's changing its study habits: Zucker got rid of Soledad O'Brien, he brought in Chris Cuomo and Kate Boulduan (Farhi says "Erin Burnett declined the reassignment to mornings), and he's tried out failed shows like (Get to) The Point even if nobody watched them. And even though ad revenue was down last year at CNN, marketers are still willing to pay top dollar to be on the network, Farhi reports, and at a hefty price:

CNN still captures a premium from advertisers relative to competitors. Baine estimates that sponsors pay $5.96 to reach a thousand viewers on CNN, compared with $5.02 for a thousand on Fox and $4.19 on MSNBC.

Why? “It’s a safer place to be” for advertisers, says Gabriel Kahn, co-director of the media economics and entre­pre­neur­ship program at USC’s Annenberg journalism school. “It can be a more boring place to be a viewer, but for an advertiser, you’re not going to hear: ‘Obama was born in Indonesia. Let’s go to a commercial!’ ”

"Safer" should apply to any advertiser that isn't Carnival Cruises, but even anonymous CNN employees tell Farhi that "we need some fresh ideas" and that Zucker "has a great instinct for what people want to watch on TV," so the cruise story torture matters. Indeed, it's quite the conundrum: If Zucker gets smarter, wonkier, or more political (the way MSNBC and Fox News have boosted their ratings), those advertising premiums go down... and the network loses money. Stay safer, saccharine, and softer... and you get to keep those dollars. That difficult dynamic is likely the driving force behind Zucker's next moves, which is former colleague and now rival at MSNBC, Phil Griffin, tells Farhi will mean more next April than they do right now. But it's one to watch when viewers hand out grades: Safer and dumber means Zucker's hedging and protecting the advertisers; political and snappier means he's taking a risk to entertain us. Ii's unclear if finding that mix of smart, safe, and unbiased would even get viewers to tune in — which we guess is why they're ramping up on sports and travel shows

Of course, it's not like Zucker would say any of this on the record ... or allow anyone at CNN to speak to the press.  "Zucker wasn't available to discuss the lighter, brighter (and perhaps dumber) CNN he seems to be molding," reads Farhi's report, adding that "he has declined all media interviews since his arrival. CNN also prohibited any of its senior executives from speaking for the record."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.