Just when the first American cable-news network may have presumed that they couldn’t fall any more, the New York Times reports today that CNN has had its decline extended even farther in the first quarter. Their main prime-time hosts have lost half of their audiences, with Fox News being the biggest beneficiary. Their main channel has even declined at times to where their headline service draws more viewers (via JWF):
CNN continued what has become a precipitous decline in ratings for its prime-time programs in the first quarter of 2010, with its main hosts losing almost half their viewers in a year.
The trend in news ratings for the first three months of this year is all up for one network, the Fox News Channel, which enjoyed its best quarter ever in ratings, and down for both MSNBC and CNN. …
About the only break from the bad news for CNN was that March was not as bad as February, when the network had its worst single month in its recent history, finishing behind not only Fox News and MSNBC, but also its sister network HLN — and even CNBC, which had Olympics programming that month.
CNN executives have steadfastly said that they will not change their approach to prime-time programs, which are led by hosts not aligned with any partisan point of view.
They can certainly keep telling themselves that their hosts don’t align with a “partisan point of view,” but the viewers obviously think otherwise. Anderson Cooper helped popularize the “teabagger” slur used against Tea Party activists, which certainly would have alienated that demographic. Larry King isn’t exactly known for his welcoming attitude towards conservatives, and neither for that matter is Campbell Brown or Rick Sanchez. When conservative points of view are expressed by guests, the CNN hosts display a lot more skepticism for them than with the expressions of liberal points of view. (Full disclosure: I’ve been on with both Campbell and Rick and they’ve treated me fairly.) It’s not hostility, like one sees on MS-NBC, but if CNN thinks that equates to not having a partisan point of view, then small wonder they haven’t been able to stanch the bleeding.
That’s not to say that CNN is the worst in class, either. CNN picked up Erick Erickson of Red State as an analyst, and they do better at balancing points of view in prime time than MS-NBC, which has become a lunatic asylum after about 11 am ET. But Fox has done a better job over a longer, consistent period of incorporating serious left-of-center analysts like Juan Williams, Mara Liasson, Kirsten Powers, and more in both its talking-heads shows and its news analysis than any of the other cablers. Being better than MS-NBC is, in any case, damning with extremely faint praise.
What can CNN do to right the ship? They need to take a much more clear-eyed view of the way they come across to their viewers. CNN has more assets in the field for news gathering than its competition, but loses credibility when it mixes editorializing with reporting. With MS-NBC so far on the Left that it can barely be seen and Fox News Channel leaning right, they might do better by actually playing it down the middle and sticking to nonpartisan analysis. They’ll need to shake up their lineup to do that, and maybe get away from the talking-head concept altogether and instead break the prime-time lineup into focus areas such as foreign affairs, politics, domestic policy, and so on. They need to make themselves useful and unique — at which they have only succeeded with their headline news.