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Can CNN Be Saved … And Should It?

We are seeing more and more reporting about CNN’s precipitous decline in ratings.  The self-proclaimed “most trusted name in news” is hemorrhaging viewers at an unprecedented rate – a drop of 90 percent in the past year in key demographic groups. The platform’s most popular programs are garnering ratings as low as 700,000 viewers.

CNN is falling to a distant third – waaaaay behind frontrunner FOX News and now seriously behind MSNBC.  It is very bad news for the political left – Fox has more viewers in several time slots than CNN and MSNBC combined.

This plunge off the ratings cliff comes at a very bad time for a couple of people – David Zaslav, the new owner of CNN, and Chris Wallace, who left a high-ratings signature program on FOX for a much smaller stage on the CNN streaming service.  They appear to have signed on to a sinking vessel. 

In a bit of comical irony, CNN’s so-called media commentator Brian Stelter responded to the reports of CNN’s decline by auspiciously declaring that “we are not going anywhere.”  We can all agree.  Just depends on how one interprets that statement.  And Stelter is supposed to be a communicator. At least he is good for a laugh – the condescending variety.  He is one of those who needs to go in any shake-up.

Can CNN turn it around?  One of my old company’s services was crisis management – specifically for high-visibility people and institutions.  And nothing has higher visibility than CNN – with the possible exception of Donald Trump.  To get out of a crisis, it takes bold and obvious moves.  You will not be successful with a little tweaking that produces a difference without a distinction.

The first step in successful crisis management is to properly identify the problem – and admit to it.  In that regard, CNN has two problems – content and personalities.  Becoming more left-wing will only worsen CNN’s rating crisis for two reasons.  MSNBC already dominates the far-left audience, and most Americans prefer center/right news and commentary.

The left tried to launch Air America as a progressive network.  It failed.  They tried to launch a program featuring then-former New York Governor Mario Cuomo with former Texas Governor Ann Richards.  It failed.  They tried to resurrect the old Phil Donohue Show.  That failed.  They jealously bemoan the power and popularity of so-called right-wing talk shows without ever understanding that they are powerful and popular because the majority of the people prefer them.

In terms of content, CNN needs to offer a wider variety of anchors, analysts, and panelists with diverse opinions.  Where it involves political opinion, CNN needs diversity in the signature programs in both content and personalities. Diversity is something the media calls for but does not practice – at least not political diversity.

As I had suggested in the past, Michael Smerconish – who CNN has buried in the Saturday morning dead zone – should be given the 9:00 p.m. prime time post. He leans left, but not all the way.  The network boss could pick up Hugh Hewitt, who was canned from a similar spot on MSNBC – or even as a co-anchor on an afternoon daily show.  He would be a credible voice for conservatives.

He would bring credibility to CNN evening lineup.  Now that they have him, CNN should move Wallace to the 8:00 p.m. spot.  No matter what the FOX fans think of him, he would also bring a lot of credibility to CNN’s evening broadcasts.

Don Lemon should be dumped. His two hours of whining and emoting have run the course.  Anderson Cooper could be switched to the later hour and paired with Alisyn Camerota. — who the network nitwits replaced on the morning show with Brianna Keilar.  Keilar may have to go unless she would take a lesser role at one of the off-hours slots.  In such a case, she would still need a counterbalancing co-host.

Obviously, Stelter must go.  He is a one-trick pony – and his trick is causing audience fatigue. His best shot in the news industry is radio.  He does not have the personality for television apart from his constantly making all media issues an attack on Republicans.

If CNN really wanted to expand its market share, hiring a conservative black woman like Candance Owns would be a good move.

In the pursuit of balance, there should be a change in the panels, analysts, contributors and interviews.  There are a lot more personality moves I could recommend, but the aforementioned would be a good start in re-positioning CNN into a more successful space.

Then there is the content.

CNN should not only bring more balance to its political commentary but should broaden the scope of the news.  Not everything newsworthy involves politics.  One of FOX’s successes is that it not only provides more diverse debate among opposing sides, but they have a LOT of non-political news.  More about world events.  More about sports.  More about entertainment.  More about cooking.  More about new products (even a resident techie called “The Cyber Guy”).

Just this morning I watched the various cable networks.  MSNBC covered Trump (and sundry attacks on Republicans) and Ukraine almost exclusively – mostly the former.  Same with CNN.  At the same time, FOX had an interview with their new hire, Piers Morgan … coverage of the Daytona 500 … the recall of the Seattle school board member, a tragic mudslide in Brazil, etc. etc.

Also, FOX understands that folks on the other side of the camera like upbeat news – some lighthearted features. Conversely, MSNBC and CNN are like listening to a doctor giving a terminal diagnosis or a prosecutor giving a closing brief – and you hear it over … and over … and over …and over.  Leftwing cable news covers the same stories … with the same spin … with the same people throughout the broadcast day.  And then repeats the shows overnight.

I have friends who are very hardcore left who have stopped watching CNN and MSNBC because of audience fatigue.  They complain of the same stories being reported over and over.

There is a reason that the most popular show on cable television is FOX’s “The Five” – in which a panel of five personalities – including at least one from the left – banter about the news of the day in a conversational format – and not always political.  They find the humor in many top stories — and express it with engaging wit.

I am well aware of the difficulty of implementing these suggestions in view of the well-established internal leftwing culture at CNN – and I know moving CNN to the center/right will ignite the hair of its more radical viewers.  But the seriousness of CNN’s decline requires serious actions.  It is axiomatic that for a change to be effective, it must be noticeable.

If CNN were my client, these are among the things I would recommend.  Unfortunately, I forgot to secure the contract before I provided my advice.

So, there ‘tis.

Written by CFP Staff Writer

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