CNN lost its way in struggle to find an audience

CNN got a rare prime-time ratings win recently in the coveted 25- to 54-year-old demographic. Of course, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper had to interview Playboy playmate Karen McDougal for an hour to get the ratings boost, but a win is a win. Cooper’s intense questioning detailed the playmate’s alleged affair with Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE from multiple angles. CNN hyped the model’s “first time on TV” interview, pointing out the “bombshell allegations.”

CNN has continued the coverage of Trump’s alleged escapades with saturation coverage of porn actress Stormy Daniels’s weekend interview on CBS. Cooper did that interview, too, as he seeks to corner the market on interviewing shapely women who have been friendly with Trump. Cooper appears to know well how to ask tough questions about sexual affairs. Nobody will ever rate these interviews, however, in the same category as CBS reporter Daniel Schorr’s cold war interview with Soviet strongman, Nikita Khrushchev.

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Daniels’s attorney, Michael Avenatti, gets more face time on CNN than some of the channel’s anchors, as CNN doubles down on covering sexual escapades. It has apparently not occurred to the CNN producers that Avenatti is playing them for all the publicity he can get.

 

There might well be journalism to be had in the sagas of McDougal and Daniels, but CNN has found little of it. At some point, the sensational must lead to news of substance. A journalistic conclusion that Trump is a cad hardly moves the “this is news” needle on the public barometer.

CNN’s warped obsession with reporting about supposed adultery demonstrates a larger problem at the once-proud and groundbreaking channel. CNN’s focus is not on news, but on distracting itself and the nation’s news consumers with peripheral and sensation gibberish that fails to enhance the national dialogue. In the run-up and aftermath to the recently passed government spending bill, CNN mentioned McDougal and Daniels more than three times as often as the spending bill. The spending bill, of course, isn’t photogenic, but it impacts citizens way more than a playmate model.

Even with the occasional ratings bump created by frenzied coverage of adulterous romps, CNN struggles to find an audience. Cooper normally gathers just over a million viewers per night for his two-hour prime-time show. That’s almost a half-million viewers fewer than disgraced anchor Brian Williams can generate for his 11 p.m. newscast on location from Siberia on MSNBC.

CNN wants to be “the most trusted name in news,” and likes to suggest it is on the objective, high road compared to more partisan competitors at MSNBC and Fox News Channel. News consumers who are political moderates or right-leaning, however, have a hard time buying that promotional line. CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta is working hard to be the Trump administration’s harshest antagonist. CNN provided massive airtime and follow-up analysis to former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg in early March. Almost three-fourths of CNN’s time over an eight hour period focused on Nunberg, who has since drifted into insignificance.

CNN President Jeff Zucker blasted Fox News recently at a journalism conference in New York, calling his cable nemesis “a pure propaganda machine.” Fox News’s prime-time programming is no doubt opinion driven and broadly defends the White House, but Zucker’s ratings envy rant overlooks solid journalism being done at Fox by anchor/reporters such as Bret Baier, Shannon Bream, Shepard Smith and others. Zucker would make better use of his time focusing on the content of his own channel.

CNN’s new strategy to boost its lagging prime time is to slot ratings-challenged morning show host Chris Cuomo to take over the 9 p.m. hour of Cooper’s current two-hour show. Once that switch is made, CNN will have back-to-back evening anchors representing elite, east coast, powerful families. Yet, CNN will still wonder why working class viewers and people in the heartland can’t relate to its on-air talent.

It is hard to imagine that Cuomo can lure viewers who just want real news, given the anti-administration tone he has generated during his morning show. And let’s face it, the real Trump haters will be watching Rachel Maddow on MSNBC at 9 p.m. Thus, CNN builds its own case for the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The nation could benefit from the CNN of yesteryear. Real news with real journalists running the show. There is a place for a cable news channel to fit in between MSNBC and Fox News. For that to happen, CNN must embark on a reinvention of itself. That seems unlikely with the current leadership and current anchor talent in place.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.