Turning CNN Around Will Not Be Easy For New CEO

In his new job as chairman and CEO of CNN Worldwide, the TV Blog wishes Mark Thompson good luck -- because he's gonna need it.

The hiring of Thompson was heralded this week by Warner Bros. Discovery. Thompson was positioned in the p.r. material as the savior of The New York Times Co.

NYT’s fortunes were sagging, according to WBD and scores of subsequent news reports, until he came along as CEO in 2012 and, by all accounts, righted the ship and set it on a course to digital success.

Before coming to NYT, Thompson was director-general (CEO and editor-in-chief) at the BBC for eight years -- 2004-12.

He also spent eight years at The Times, leaving in 2020 to become chairman of Ancestry, the genealogy and family-tree company, where he spent the last three years.

Evidently, running big journalism media companies was in his DNA, so he said farewell to Ancestry and hello to the news biz hoping to work a turnaround at CNN.



“As president and CEO of The New York Times from 2012-2020, he led the creation of the world's largest and most successful digital business to date, increasing paid digital subscriptions to the Times tenfold and more than doubling the company's total digital revenues,” said WBD’s press release.

“During his tenure, there were also stand-out innovations in podcasting (The Daily) and lifestyle and features content (NYT Cooking, NYT Games, Wirecutter),” it said. If “NYT Games” includes Wordle, then hats off to him.

The TV Blog has no firsthand knowledge sufficient to say if CNN's problems today bear any similarities to the woes of The New York Times in 2012.

But whether they mirror the Times’ woes or not, here are some of CNN challenges just now.

According to story after story, ratings are moribund with CNN viewership tanking compared to MSNBC and Fox News Channel.

This is problem No. 1 because it has a direct bearing on making money.

Attempts at turning this situation around have only muddied the waters. The most recent move was a revamp of CNN's prime-time lineup announced August 14.

These kinds of reshuffles run the risk of confusing viewers -- or in the case of CNN, what's s left of them -- who tune in expecting a certain show at a certain time and then can't find it.

The new lineup is laid out in the above image -- at 7 Eastern, Erin Burnett (I've heard of her!) and at 8 Eastern, Anderson Cooper (everyone knows him!).

They are then followed by Kaitlin Collins at 9, Abby Phillip at 10 and Laura Coates at 11. Until the new lineup was announced a few weeks ago, I had never heard of Kaitlin Collins.

Until yesterday, I can't say I ever knew the names of Abby Phillip and Laura Coates either.

The fact that the TV Blog is unfamiliar with these three and their work should pose no concern to them.

I know that for someone to attain the heights of CNN prime time, they must have something on the ball.

I don't doubt the experience and professionalism of the top news stars at CNN or anywhere else in TV news.

But herein lies a big challenge area for CNN's incoming CEO. When many people have never heard of your top talent, that's a big problem.

You can either stick with them for a while, during which time you promote the hell out of them to see they'll gain any traction, or you can shop for news personalities working elsewhere who already have a following and might be capable of bringing their audiences with them to CNN.

The problem here seems to be: In today's fractured media world, there are no such famous news stars anymore.

In addition, people don't raid their competitors for high-profile hires anymore either. Those occasional triumphs always made for great stories. Why? Because everyone knew who these people were.

And what about the nature of TV news generally? Aided and abetted by social media and the partisan ravings of the news channels, today's generation doesn't even know what “news” is.

“The world needs accurate trustworthy news now more than ever and we've never had more ways of meeting that need at home and abroad,” said Thompson in the prepared statement they wrote for him in the WBD press release.

Sure, the world might “need” accurate, trustworthy news, but does it want it? All signs point to no.

6 comments about "Turning CNN Around Will Not Be Easy For New CEO".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 1, 2023 at 10:33 a.m.

    Good one, Adam. Anyone who studies the ratings over the past twenty years can see that the path to average minute rating success, as practiced first by Fox News and more recently by MSNBC, has been to feature hosts of the major news dayparts---early AM and prime time--who viewers can bond with.

    It's not so much the news that bonds them, rather its the opinions and political slant of the host---plus his/her personality---that generates not only a frequent viewing habit but much longer "dwell time" per visit---which is something CNN is woefully lacking throughout the day. It's really simple. "the news" isn't all that interesting on a daily basis and it's really the same "news" on every channel---a plane crashes, the Ukrainians advance slightly in their war with Putin, Trump's latest legal problems in the courts raise issues, the weather is turning dangerously cold in some areas, etc.  What's "news" to many of today's cable news viewers is what their favorite hosts think about not only the current happpenings but the political and international scene in general---or any other matters that they care to delve into.

    What CNN needs is personalities who have opinions---and, hopefully a balanced portfolio that both conservatives and liberals can relate to---each picking those hosts that they believe reflect their values and opinions. Set these up in the early morning and in prime time and it's OK to go with straight news ---no opinions----in the daytime hours, though you might consider a Noon commentary approach as well. 

    It's just my opinion, but I doubt that CNN will go in this direction and I also doubt that it will catch up with Fox and MSNBC in Nielsen's average minute ratings as a result. But we shall have to wait and see.

  2. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics, September 1, 2023 at 1:53 p.m.

    To repeat what the great observer of audiences Steve Sternberg shared with us all , shows make stars, stars don't make shows. How many times have we seen talent move to new nets or new shows and fail to deliver on the promise?  I've seen it many times. He's right. We seem to credit the "anchor" with a shows success or failure, but that is way too simple. Those who know and understand program audiences, including news programs, understand it's the show, the writing, the storytelling, the teasing, the consistent delivery of great writing, video, and stories that make stars. Talking heads, static video, video loops that repeat, don't work. A brilliant news programmer once told me "the audience give you 15 seconds with an option to renew."  I know he was right. That's why it's so hard.  

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 1, 2023 at 5:03 p.m.

    One question one might ask, Jack, is whether the people who chart CNN's future see what they are doing as putting on "shows"---or merely reporting "the news". Of course it's important to have good back-up writers, researchers, technicians, a great set,  etc. but is that the main reason why various Fox  "news personalities" such as O'Reilly, Carlson, Hannity, Kelly, "The Five" etc. or Maddow on MSNBC won the cable news rating wars? If so, why did Fox lose so many average minute viewers in prime time when it fired Tucker? If the show is all important, not the  anchor, what explains the recent, strong gains by MSNBC---better production techniques, research, etc.  or the powerful political currents that are stirring that Maddow and company have been exploiting ?

    Of course there are examples of stars jumping networks and failing but do we really think that "The Cosby Show" or "All In The Family" or "The Odd Couple"  or "The Honeymooners",or many more would have done just as well if others were cast in the lead roles? It's  true that ensemble shows---with large numbers of characters---like "Cheers" for example--- can lose one or even two "regulars without hurting badly in the Nielsens---and sometimes, the replacements even help the shows to draw more viewers. But I  wish to respectfully disagree with the premise that "the show" is just about everything and the "star"---or stars---are, in effect, expendable. When it comes to cable news this point has been made rather forcefully over the years. Whether the new CNN management gets this---or wishes to go in the "personality direction"---- remains to be seen---but I  doubt that they will depart from their focus on "straight news" and away from opinions.

  4. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics replied, September 1, 2023 at 7:54 p.m.

    Each of the shows you say are successful have talent and a formula they fill consistently every day. They are not just talking heads. They are well produced, carefully scripted TV shows. Even a local newscast delivers a consistent program every evening.  Sharing the news means providing people with interesting content every minute, otherwise people bail. 

  5. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 2, 2023 at 2 a.m.

    Of course, they  are not just talking heads, Jack. That's my point. For their fans the anchors are often surrogates for the audience, representing what the viewer wants to believe or has been conditioned to agree with. Of course it's a good thing to support these personalities with  research and technical support, visually enhancing sets, video clips, etc. but where we part company is the notion that the show's design, manner of presentation, political orientation and guest selection is the whole ball game and it doesn't matter who the anchors are---any TV savvy pro will do. I just don't buy that.

    As for the fifteen second rule---that unless you get the viewer interested in the first few seconds you will lose him---or her---that may well apply for a 30-second TV commercial---and it often does, but hardly for a one- hour detective drama or a reality talent show or even a half-hour sitcom. In fifteen seconds you know virtually nothing about that episode's plot  and the same point applies to the straight  news approach which, typically consists of many short segments covering a wide range of often unrealted happenings. Interestingly, the commentary programs---Hannity, Maddow, etc. have made it a practice to hook thier viewers by limiting or not even presenting commercials for the first ten minutes or longer as an audience holding device. If the fifteen second rule applied, that tactic would not work---but it seems to, anyway.

  6. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics replied, September 2, 2023 at 3:28 a.m.

    Let me clarify. The 15 second rule applies continuously Ed. It doesn't mean if you hold them for the first 15 seconds of a program they stay. In fact it's quite the opposite.  It means you must continually engage or they will leave you.  It is 15 seconds with an option to renew for another 15 seconds for the show's duration. Today's viewer especially is quick to become bored and cut to something else.  Also, to clarify, talent is important, but it is almost always given much more credit than the production. My point is that talent is only part of what's important, and usually the other parts are ignored.  My reference to talking heads is that every show brings in a "panel" of generally lesser known people who differ from day to day offering little of interest. Compelling video and interviews with people are simply more engaging.  Panels are overused and boring. Viewers seek continuous stimulation, not repeated loops next to a talking head. When a show doesn't advance the story or present something new, viewers get bored and bail.

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