In Depth

Lagging CNN Sells on Its Credibility

By Jon Lafayette

With cable news channels turning increasingly argumentative, part of CNN’s pitch to ad buyers is that its style of old-fashioned journalism is a better environment for advertisers.

While much attention has been paid to the decline in CNN’s prime-time ratings — it finished in third place among cable news networks in prime time last year, trailing Fox News Channel and MSNBC — the network at its upfront presentation in New York last month pointed out that when all of its digital platforms are taken into account, more people are consuming its content than ever before.

“Some of the other players in the category have a different emphasis,” said Greg D’Alba, executive VP and chief operating officer of CNN Advertising Sales. “But CNN is still on the platform of journalism, and the reliability and trusted environment matters, certainly for our consumers, but for a lot of advertisers as well.”

That trusted environment is one reason why CNN reaches more “influential” consumers, as defined by Roper.

“We’ve always talked about getting to that one person out of 10 that tells the other nine who to vote for, what movies to see, and certainly what to buy,” D’Alba said.

In addition to being the top cable network among Roper’s influentials, CNN, in all of its manifestations, reached an integrated audience of 3 million influentials, the most of any broadcast or cable network, according to Nielsen Fusion data.

In addition to reaching influential viewers, it also reaches more affluent ones.

“We reach over half, 58 percent of the adults, who have a household income of $250K or more. And that’s in television,” D’Alba said. “When you look at digital, we’re attracting an audience on the CNN.com site that is 13 percent more likely to have an average portfolio of over $500K.”

By some traditional measures, this is a tough time for CNN. Ratings for its prime-time shows were down sharply during the first quarter. Larry King’s show was down 43 percent among adults 25 to 54. Anderson Cooper’s show was down 42 percent.

CNN acknowledged that prime-time ratings were a problem and that it was taking steps to recharge its lineup. But while some suggest more argument and partisanship could improve its ratings, D’Alba said the network wouldn’t go in that direction.

“We’re not going to turn our back on prime time. Prime time matters,” he said. “We’re never going to panic and grow it the wrong way. We’re going to stay true to our mission and our core values. We will see that strength again in prime time.”

D’Alba said CNN’s ratings might also pick up as the 2010 midterm elections get nearer.

“I think it’s inevitable that there’s going to be tremendous interest on this trail — that the story is going to heat up,” D’Alba said. “We’re prepared to tell it, and it’s going to get really interesting, and we’re going to see a bump in audience because the story itself is going to become so prominent.”

CNN is selling election sponsorships and is in the process of selling four or five major packages that would allow them to surround political content on cable, including election night coverage and prime-time events the network is developing. The packages also include digital content such as video, photos, interactive elements, live online video events, data-driven maps and political ticker updates.

CNN is making guarantees on TV ratings that include out-of-home viewing as measured by the Arbitron Portable People Meter system. In the fourth quarter, the inclusion of out-of-home viewers added 40 percent to the network’s viewership among adults 25 to 54, and 59 percent among young adults 18 to 34.

But CNN’s real growth is coming from digital.

“The real message is that media consumption is changing, moving faster than ever before,” D’Alba said, “and the reality is we have more audience today than we had three [or] four years ago. Our content just followed the audience. They consume us wherever they are. It’s a very, very positive story.”

“I welcome the opportunity to do something cross-platform,” said Andy Donchin, head of national broadcast at media agency Carat. “They still have some work to do with their television numbers.”
But D’Alba said more and more advertisers and agencies are planning for multiple media integration because of the change in the way media is being consumed.

“It's about reaching many, many more people that are capable of buying more products in more dayparts on more platforms wherever they are, which is what this business is all about,” he said.

“To reach the same person over and over again isn’t going to sell more product. To reach many, many more people in more places at more times is going to sell you a hell of a lot more product. And that’s the bigger playing field. If you can play on it you’re looking at a very strong future. If you can’t, your success will be very short-lived if you can’t get to this consumer the way they want you and where they are.”