In Depth

CNN Tries to Tell a New Upfront Tale

In a Ratings Slump, a Multiplatform Pitch

As it approaches the upfront, CNN isn’t talking ratings.

Instead, Greg D’Alba, executive VP and chief operating officer of CNN Advertising Sales, talks about how many different viewers the news network reaches, not just on TV but through its online and digital properties.

Mr. D’Alba also talks about integrating CNN’s trusted content with advertiser messages and the franchises relating to health, politics, finance, technology, the environment and diversity that are available for sponsors that find them relevant.

For CNN, the first-quarter primetime ratings news wasn’t good. The network finished third in the ratings in the key 25 to 54 news demographic, behind longtime leader Fox News Channel and, for the first time, MSNBC.

CNN’s primetime viewership among adults 25 to 54 fell 23%, while Fox News Channel gained 20% and MSNBC increased by 23%. In total-day viewership, CNN remained solidly in second place, posting a 7% increase, while Fox News jumped 24% and MSNBC gained 11%.

Despite that, CNN registered record revenue in the first quarter, according to Mr. D’Alba, even compared with the election-fueled quarter a year ago.

“It’s because our partners buy into the value of CNN delivering more audiences in more ways,” Mr. D’Alba said.

That claim is supported by data from Nielsen Fusion, which combines television and online use, he said. The numbers show the CNN brand had the largest integrated audience of any broadcast or cable network in January, with 18.2 million 25- to 54-year-olds watching CNN both on television and online. It also racked up 5.3 million integrated viewers ages 18 to 34 and 15.8 million in the 18-to-49 demographic.

“While many other media companies, and certainly our competitors, try to shorten the playing field, talking about an hour in a given week [on television], the game plan has changed,” Mr. D’Alba said. “The playing field isn’t shortening, it’s lengthening. Our advertisers have the opportunity to reach more media consumers because of their attachment to a strong brand turbocharged by technology, and we’re seeing our audience across the board grow.”

While buyers give CNN high marks for its ability to create 360-degree packages and integrations, ratings still matter.

“CNN definitely has branded themselves more 360 than their competitors, especially with their Facebook partnership,” said Nicole Romanik, VP and director of national broadcast at media agency Initiative.

But, she added, “When you have money that’s slated to be spent for TV, clients want to see the GRPs [gross ratings points]. And yes, they may have the best Web site, but that’s not necessarily going to translate into television eyeballs.”

At the same time, Ms. Romanik said, MSNBC’s emergence will help that network with buyers.

“The fact that they’ve beaten CNN in primetime is huge. Clients that buy cable news that didn’t spend money there before would spend money there now,” she said.

Where once MSNBC would be put on buys for its low price, “Now you’re buying them because they’ve legitimized themselves,” she added.

Derek Baine, an analyst at SNL Kagan, said that last year, he was surprised that CNN claimed higher ad sales in both 2006 and 2007 despite disappointing ratings.

Because of the election year in 2008, all of the news networks posted big gains in TV ad sales, Kagan estimates, with CNN, at $556 million, trailing Fox News, with $567 million in net ad revenues. MSNBC registered $192 million in ad sales, according to Kagan.

Mr. Baine said he didn’t have an estimate for CNN’s ad revenue from other platforms.

Post-Election Falloff

Between the recession and the absence of election-year spending, Mr. Baine is projecting CNN’s TV ad revenue will fall to $491 million this year.

While the economy may cause many advertisers to cancel upfront ad buys for the second quarter, Mr. D’Alba said he saw relatively few cutbacks.

“We have become recession-resilient,” he said. “Nobody is recession-proof. I can’t begin to guess what could happen in the second half of the year.”

He said the preponderance of integrated and multiplatform advertisers on CNN is a reason why there were few cancellations.

“It’s very difficult to cancel business when your creative is running on multiple platforms reaching more audiences in multiple ways,” he said.

Scattered Sales

Mr. D’Alba said the scatter business has been strong and steady, but unpredictable. Sales have been to advertisers in the energy business, entertainment, computer services and hardware, as well as from the retail, food, restaurants, legal and insurance categories. He said CNN’s auto business has held up, and that it’s seeing more money from the auto aftermarket category.

CNN does have a traditional ratings success story in its HLN, formerly Headline News. Until recently, commercials on HLN were sold packaged with ads on CNN, but Mr. D’Alba said ratings growth has created demand for HLN as a stand-alone buy.

“You’ve got a fully distributed network here that’s showing dramatic growth,” he said. “We will sell it separately when desired.”