CNN loses its way

Feb 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Where have you gone, Ted Turner? CNN turns its lonely eyes to you.
OK, it isn’t Simon and Garfunkel, and who among the 18 to 34 set remembers “The Graduate”? But with last month’s cable news ratings causing an earthquake in Atlanta and at AOL Time Warner corporate headquarters, it’s time to examine exactly what’s happening in the alphabet world of CNN, MSNBC and FNC, or as we call it, the Rupert Murdoch-Roger Ailes news channel.
By now, the entire TV world knows that in January the upstart Fox News Channel beat CNN and the last-place MSNBC in the cable news ratings. This is the first time ever that any cable news competitor has beaten Ted’s invention for a whole month of viewing-and Fox did it even though it’s in about 10 million fewer homes than CNN. Ouch!
Blinded by stars
Since our friends at Time Warner can’t seem to figure out how this disaster happened, I’ll clue them in.
Every TV producer I know says a program or a network needs 1.) a vision and 2.) the people-behind the cameras and on the tube-so the vision can see the light of day. When Ted came up with CNN, the vision was make the news the star and forget personalities who become stars. And except for Larry King, that was CNN. And it worked.
Then someone, first at NBC and then at News Corp. said, “Whoa, how much money is CNN making? That’s a lot of mint juleps. We need to take on that sucker!”
At Fox, Ailes came up with his vision. Talk radio-the Rush Limbaugh types, preferably-on TV. Ailes knew that when there was real news, he’d get viewers. But his genius was in figuring out how to get viewers most days, when the big story is two senators fighting over pig subsidies. The solution? Get personalities that people like-or in Bill O’Reilly’s case, that people hate-so no matter what the news of the day is, the Fox shows (and make no mistake, they are shows) will have a viewer base, a number they can count on.
The fall
At MSNBC, the on-air mission changes every other week, but it’s got the benefit of NBC’s Brokaws, Courics, Lauers and Robert Hagers, augmented by cable’s own stars: Brian Williams and Ashleigh Banfield, with the assorted Jarretts, Holts and Jansings thrown in.
What was CNN’s response to all this? In the early days, there was no response. It was steady as she goes. The Shaws, Woodruffs and Batistas of the world droned on. When the ratings fell, the CNNers said it was because there was no news. Then CNN was hit with a hanging chad. And horror of horrors, even with real Gorey news, CNN found itself still shaking the Bushes for viewers.
Yes, its numbers went up, but not as much as the others. And worse, even with real news, CNN didn’t dominate. This couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Atlanta Mafia. AOL was swallowing up Time Warner, CNN’s parent company. Ted was out. In came Garth Ancier and Jamie Kellner from-gasp!-real entertainment television! Where stars were kings and not just Larry. For the journalism side, the throne was given to Walter Isaacson from Time Magazine. Ted had been morphed into three people.
At first Walter wanted to do to for CNN what he did at Time: broaden the franchise to include stories on breast cancer and the “real” America. Then came Sept. 11 and all that was scratched. New game plan: Get stars. Jamie and Garth had already hired former “NYPD Blue” star Andrea Thompson for the new Headline News, and CNN got former ABC newsman Aaron Brown and foxy, er, Fox’s Paula Zahn in the days right before the attack. And just last month, Walter rescued Connie Chung from ABC. The agents like Liebner, Cooper, Perry, Griffin and Berger love this. Clients that were either being underused-or worse, being phased out-had a place to land: in the formerly Colorless News Network.
The idea of getting better news stars is a good one but, does anyone believe Brown can match Brokaw, Rather or Jennings? Brown isn’t Canadian, is much too low frequency to spin homilies and isn’t boyish. And come on, Zahn doesn’t stack up to Couric or Sawyer. As for Connie, this is her fourth network in 11 years. Are NBC, ABC and CBS wrong? By the way, look at the audience flow-Chung, King and then Brown and Jeff Greenfield. “Friends,” “Will & Grace” and “ER” it’s not. And the latest, Arthel Neville, for “Talk Back Live.” To paraphrase David Letterman: Arthel … Oprah. Oprah … Arthel. Oprah wins. What you have here is B-level talent masquerading as big-name network talent and the public rejecting Brown, Zahn and the rest of CNN in favor of the O’Reillys, Smiths, Hannitys and Colmeses.
CNN may not like it. You may not like it. But as they say, That’s Entertainment! And, no, I’m not Rick Kaplan.
Producer gap
Now, the story behind the scenes is even worse. What good is it to put talk shows on if you don’t get the proper production team to make it work? For “America Morning,” or as it’s known in TV land, “America Mourning,” well-respected news producer Kathy O’Hearn is at the helm. But morning shows aren’t real news shows (man, I can’t believe I’m giving all this great advice away for free)-they are talk shows. Did CNN go after ABC’s Shelley Ross at “Good Morning America”? Her contract was up this winter. Or did they hire “Today” alumni Michael Bass? Nope. Now the rumor mill says Chung’s show will be produced by Bruce Pearlmutter. He was at CNN’s “Newsstand,” which some refer to as a debacle, and he was at the Greta-Van-Susteren-Before-the-Facelift Show. Good luck, Connie.
Who’s watching?
Before we deify Fox, we must say it averaged about 600,000 viewers in January. That’s about one-fifth the number who watch the three 4:30 a.m. network newscasts on CBS, NBC and ABC-and the only reason CBS is on is because some college kids fall asleep after “Letterman” and forget to turn the set off. To put this in perspective, local news on stations in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have more viewers than Fox or CNN. As the New York Daily News recently wrote, never has so much been written about something so few people watch.
In hiring Kellner and Ancier, CNN put TV people on staff who don’t know journalism. In taking Isaacson from Time, they have a journalist who doesn’t know TV. And in relying on CNN staffers to produce their shows, they have mismatched what they want to do. Hey, Bob Pittman, the AOL honcho who once ran MTV, you know this needs to change. There you had a concept of music video TV, and it made stars of Martha Quinn then and Carson Daly now. So Mr. AOL-MTV, isn’t it time for some real hotshot news jockeys at CNN? Or is Ted waiting in the wings to make CNN CNN again-that is if he can get his foot out of his mouth after calling the Sept. 11 hijackers “heroic” at Brown University. Stay tuned, and as Ted would’ve said before he stopped drinking-“I’ll have a scotch with a beer chaser.”