CNN Faces News Channel Challenge, Fills Airtime With Non-News Programming

What’s a news channel to do with all those hours when no one’s watching? Fill ’er up with non-news programming, that’s what.

This has long been the strategy at MSNBC, which turns over huge chunks of its airtime to the nation’s prison system with its “Lockup” series and its offshoots -- “Lockup Raw” and “Lockup: Extended Stay” (one of the most hilarious titles on TV, as if a long prison sentence is little more than an “extended stay” at a Marriott).

In the past week or so, CNN’s filler programs have been receiving attention in various stories about CNN President Jeff Zucker. The New York Times did a story assessing CNN under Zucker’s reign, which began in January 2013. 



“So far this year, CNN ratings are hovering near 20-year lows,” the story reported. “Average prime-time viewers are down about 6 percent to 176,000, compared with 2013, in the audience that attracts the most revenue for news channels, viewers between the ages of 25 and 54. Total day viewers this year are down 7.6 percent, to 122,000, according to Nielsen.”

The story noted, however, that CNN “earns hundreds of millions of dollars and is on track to have its most profitable year ever.”  That assessment was corroborated in a New York magazine story that reported that CNN would realize a profit of $600 million this year, due mainly to its share of cable subscription fees.

Zucker was interviewed for the New York magazine story. But he declined to be interviewed for the Times piece.

Both stories made sure to mention how CNN has been developing “non-news programming” that Zucker and his team hope will stabilize the network’s viewership or, more to the point, do better than news programming on those days and evenings when there’s no big news story unfolding anywhere in the world (which happens to be the case on most days).

In these stories about CNN, and other stories like them that appear from time to time, much is always made about these alternative programs, as if CNN has suddenly invented a whole genre of TV programming that you might categorize loosely as “other kinds of shows that aren’t news.”

Prominent in all the stories is the show that stars the swashbuckling foodie Anthony Bourdain, who has been traveling the world in search of interesting things to eat for almost a decade, most notably on his Travel Channel series called “No Reservations.”

His CNN show is called “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” On this show, he does basically the same thing he’s done on his Travel Channel show -- travel around and eat, while also engaging with colorful locals.

Another CNN show that got some notice last week is a new one that is due to premiere this fall called “Somebody’s Gotta Do It.”  This one stars the affable Mike Rowe, best known as the narrator on “Deadliest Catch” and the host of (and gung-ho participant on) “Dirty Jobs” (both on Discovery Channel).

In this new CNN show, Rowe will be seen traveling around the country visiting “men and women who march to the beat of a different drum,” said a press release from CNN announcing the show. “In each episode, Rowe visits unique individuals and joins them in their respective undertakings [like “Dirty Jobs” perhaps?], paying tribute to innovators, do-gooders, entrepreneurs, collectors [and] fanatics -- people who simply have to do it." 

There was also a report making the rounds of another project in the works at CNN, although it was not officially confirmed: A documentary miniseries about the 1970s called “The Seventies.” It’s a followup to the first such documentary series CNN produced and aired that was called “The Sixties.” CNN was apparently pleased with “The Sixties” and now seems bent on pursuing documentaries about the ensuing decades. (While they’re at it, they might consider showcasing some of the preceding decades too -- because if they don’t, they’ll soon run out of decades.)

Here again, recounting the history of various decades isn’t exactly a new idea. On TV, it has been done by networks as varied as VH-1 and National Geographic Channel. 

There is nothing particularly wrong with any of these ideas (especially if they bring about the desired result for CNN, which is to prop up sagging time periods). Bourdain is a very entertaining and knowledgeable food-show host. And Mike Rowe is a likable presence wherever he is encountered -- in the flesh, in voice only, or in commercials pitching Viva paper towels.

But these shows -- and others like them that CNN has developed lately -- are ordinary TV shows, the likes of which air everywhere every day. They are largely imitative and derivative of things we’ve seen before. So why should they be expected to draw more viewers to CNN?

Like it or not, CNN is a news channel where people expect to find news when they tune in. Speaking for myself, when I tune in to CNN looking for news, and I find Anthony Bourdain enjoying a meal in a Tokyo restaurant or a White Castle in the Bronx, the only thing to do at such a time is to look for news elsewhere.  And if I want to watch a food show, then I’ll go to the Food Network.


10 comments about "CNN Faces News Channel Challenge, Fills Airtime With Non-News Programming ".
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  1. Jonathan McEwan from MediaPost, October 6, 2014 at 2:20 p.m.

    I thought you might have some insight into their recent one-story news coverage approach, since that directive is clearly being dictated from above. This past week CNN is Ebola central, with non-stop coverage of what is, to be honest, not that much of a story, and should be handled in a way designed to assuage viewers fears instead of inciting panic. OMG. Are the sheets still on the bed? It's not just poor reporting, it's shamefully misleading, and fear mongering in a misguided attempt to improve ratings. The most trusted name in news is fast becoming a joke.

  2. Roy Moskowitz from Reciprocal Results, October 6, 2014 at 2:33 p.m.

    I get annoyed when I can't get news from any alleged news network, even on CNN Headline. The MSNBC prison programming particularly irks me, as I can't imagine anyone tuning into Rachel Maddow or Lawrence O’Donnell would want to tune into such right wing crap. On the other hand, the prison programming would be compatible with Fox.

  3. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, October 6, 2014 at 2:37 p.m.

    Is CNN or Jeff Zucker addicted to Insanity?
    "Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results" Source: Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous (Published 1980 On the other hand, I think the explanation is much simpler: Mr. Zucker just wants to be the most visible performer in the modern TV circus. And CNN just wants its viewers to walk the emotional high wire without a cognitive net to catch them when "Breaking News" distracts their attention from the chills and thrills of the "24/7 CNN Cable Snews" (sic) high wire act. After all, wasn't Jeff Zucker the inventor of "NBC Slightly News?" (sic) Now, there is a circus.

    [ - PDF page 25]

  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, October 6, 2014 at 2:42 p.m.

    CNN built its name by covering major "crises" events like the OJ Simpson car chase, to name only one, and Zucker is trying to go back to what has worked in the past instead of feeding us 24 hours a day of straight news when there really isn't much happening on a given day. CNN's problem is that it has a slightly larger reach than Fox News but its typical viewer spends much less time with the channel----hence, Fox wins by a mile in the average minute ratings. The non-news programming is intended to function in the same manner----hook a viewer for 30-60 minutes, not 5-10 minutes. Frankly, this approach, if the right programming mix is found, may position CNN more competitively in the Nielsens, at least in the short run. If that happens, it will be interesting to see how Fox responds----as it surely will.

  5. charles bachrach from BCCLTD, October 6, 2014 at 3:25 p.m.

    Jeff Zucker was and remains the most incompetent individual in
    the history of broadcast. He's ruined every company he's been
    involved with and will now do the same. CNN (which has the nick-
    name of "the Catastrophic News Network ) should pay some attention to the likes of their sister network...CNN International and
    others like MSNBC.

  6. Randall Bongarten from Bonten Media Group, October 6, 2014 at 4:59 p.m.

    Ed Papazian is right in observing the cause of CNN's ratings issue. The problem is that in attempting to develop increased time-spent-viewing, CNN is reneging on its brand promise. It has allowed itself to get sucked into a battle it probably cannot win. A better strategy would be to focus on growing its circulation rather than average audience, and then positioning itself to advertisers as something entirely different from FOX News or MSNBC -- as a reach medium. CNN needs to change its definition of success and explain it to its customers.

  7. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, October 6, 2014 at 6:36 p.m.

    Dear Ed & Randy, The problem with CNN is not one of mathematics (TSV) or marketing (BRANDING). The core issue is a matter of people and principles. Having started my career in a Group W Newsroom under the leadership of Don McGannon, I must disagree with the assertion that "... there really isn't much happening on a given day." Moreover, this matter is far more serious than "reneging on ... (a) brand promise." Although this is not meant to be a lesson in piscine biology, the proverb holds at CNN, as at other places where leadership has failed miserably, "The fish stinks from the head down." CNN has sold us and the world a bill of bogus goods when it comes to defining what is newsworthy and what is not. As long as CNN turns news, other than "Breaking News," into vapid, navel gazing, then viewers will believe when it comes to news it's either nightmarish scenarios or it's not news at all. As a former journalist, I subscribed to the "first draft of history" school of news when it came to my reporting every day -- first at Group W and then at NBC ... be it a NYC Transit Strike or a US Moon Landing (I was never a fan of the "kicker" to end the newscast). Every event has moment, if we treat the "who, what, when, where, why, and how" of this world with thoughtfulness and respect. CNN seeks to manipulate the public instead of serve the public. CNN should be consistently delivereing TV programming that is in the "public interest, convenience and necessity." But CNN is not! In 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minnow advocated for TV in the public interest by observing the "vast wasteland" it had become even by then.
    [I shall provide the exact words of Newton Minnow in my next comment – without comment.] The principles he cited are timeless, even if some of the particulars sound dated. Whether the year is 1961 or 2014, the public interest should not be defined by Jeff Zucker, John Martin or Jeffrey Bewkes. The public interest should be defined by the impressively wise men, women and children who move among us. Onward and upwards. Randy and Ed, I know you know where I am coming from. Thank you for listening and understanding. Sincerely, Nick
    (Nicholas P. Schiavone)

  8. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, October 6, 2014 at 6:46 p.m.

    Newton N. Minow, FCC Chairman, advocating before the NAB in 1961 for programming in the public interest:
    "When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
    But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
    You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it." ...
    "Television and all who participate in it are jointly accountable to the American public for respect for the special needs of children, for community responsibility, for the advancement of education and culture, for the acceptability of the program materials chosen, for decency and decorum in production, and for propriety in advertising. This responsibility cannot be discharged by any given group of programs, but can be discharged only through the highest standards of respect for the American home, applied to every moment of every program presented by television.Program materials should enlarge the horizons of the viewer, provide him with wholesome entertainment, afford helpful stimulation, and remind him of the responsibilities which the citizen has toward his society." Newton N. Minow, "Television and the Public Interest", address to the National Association of Broadcasters, Washington, D.C., May 9, 1961.

  9. Scott Gilbert from The Radio Mall, October 7, 2014 at 5:27 p.m.

    Really? I thought they gave up 100% news years ago starting with (ugh) Nancy Grace on Headline News. Putting that shrew on the air was the beginning of the end for CNN and HLN. Getting rid of Larry King was another nail in their coffin.

  10. Edmund Singleton from Winstion Communications, October 8, 2014 at 4:32 a.m.

    CNN can annoy me more by rebroadcasting the weeks news crawls...

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