CNN's turmoil: not good news

Posted: Sep 04, 2000 12:00 AM
The news is in: CNN/USA President Rick Kaplan is out. Allow me to explain why this is not a time for my fellow conservatives to pop those champagne corks. The numbers tell a story of a network in serious trouble. When Rick Kaplan began at CNN in the fall of 1997, CNN enjoyed a daily audience of 463,000 viewers. That number has fallen steadily since that time; today it stands at 288,000, a 36 percent drop. Worse still, its primetime audience during this time period fell 47 percent. It's a freefall with no end in sight. Clearly something had to change, especially with the planned merger of Time Warner (CNN's parent company) and internet giant AOL on the horizon. That something was the ouster of Kaplan, and a major management reshuffling. But why the nose dive? When CNN was launched in 1980, founder Ted Turner was the laughingstock of the journalism community. A 24-hour, seven-day cable newscast? Mars would have 7-Elevens before this harebrained idea would work -- such was the flat-world view of the communications industry. But cable, and the niche-marketing evolution of the television industry, was indeed the future; the CNN all-day newscast had a virtual monopoly on both fronts; and Turner's brainchild became a $20 billion empire. Those days are now over. Analysts pin CNN's slide to the emergence of all-news competitors on cable, primarily MSNBC and Fox News Channel (FNC). Both these networks (and to a lesser degree, outlets like CNBC) have steadily chipped away at CNN's audience. In just a handful of years, MSNBC has 208,000 daily viewers, FNC another 225,000. Even more ominous: While CNN has 100 percent saturation of the cable market in the U.S., these two competitors combined reached but two-thirds of the country. While they have plenty of room to grow, CNN has no more frontiers to conquer in the States. Were FNC and MSNBC mere copycats of CNN, neither would be succeeding. (Why leave CNN for the same thing elsewhere?) Both are different. Each has carved out a marketing niche for itself, which explains CNN's turmoil. For FNC, it is its unabashed "We Report, You Decide" approach. By breaking from the liberal media orthodoxy and making a bold, unapologetic effort to include conservatives in its news programming, Fox is on its way to capturing a vast market, much as Rush Limbaugh did on the radio a decade ago. It is why conservatives greet the news of Kaplan's ouster with a big I-told-you-so. From the very start, Kaplan was the personification of liberal media bias. He was a Friend of Bill who reportedly moonlighted for Clinton during the '92 campaign while simultaneously serving as executive producer of ABC's "Nightline," and was given the Lincoln bedroom red-carpet treatment by the Clinton White House while heading CNN. Kaplan was seen as anything but objective by the right. The "Tailwind" story fiasco on his "Newsstand" program, which horribly maligned the U.S. military -- and for which CNN was forced to profusely apologize -- cemented his anti-conservative reputation. So conservatives see CNN's decline under Kaplan, and the commensurate rise of Fox, as two plus two equals four. There is truth here, but it's not the whole story. How, then, do we explain the rise of MSNBC, whose news content is arguably more liberal than CNN's? It is the second part of CNN's dilemma: The public no longer cares about news. Turn on the morning "news" programs on broadcast television and you'll learn what one of the "Survivor" non-survivors had for breakfast. The nightly broadcasts are no better, with a story or two devoted to news, the rest to meandering nothingness. The hard news, we're told, has been delegated to their cable cousins. But look at MSNBC and you'll find the same thing. It may as well be tagged the JonBenet Ramsey and/or Princess Diana All Day Network. It has shamelessly thrown its news integrity to the wind covering ad nauseum one tabloid story after the next. Which is not to say that CNN doesn't do the same on occasion. But let's give Mr. Kaplan credit here: He (ITAL) did (ITAL) try to keep CNN more newsworthy than outlets like MSNBC by introducing programs like "Newsstand." Whatever its faults, CNN has attempted to maintain a semblance of gravitas in its news reporting. The public, sadly, doesn't seem to want it. During the Simpson murder trial, CNN was disparaged as the "O.J. Network" for its nonstop coverage. Why did CNN do this? In the year leading up to the trial, it had lost 25 percent of its audience; when it switched to O.J. coverage, its audience soared by 400 percent, with an average daily audience of 6.5 million people. You can't fault the network for that decision. When the public no longer cares about real news it signals a civic apathy that is profoundly disturbing for its implications. It is why this conservative is not celebrating the developments at CNN.
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