The Slow Death of a Cable News Network

CNN Worldwide made Jeff Zucker president of the company in 2013 to turn around their declining fortunes. Well, the numbers are in, and they don’t look good.

Twenty months after taking over one of the most prominent news brands, Mr. Zucker is still trying to define CNN’s place in a world of unlimited real-time information. He is laying off journalists and cutting expenses while trying to keep a once-leading cable network relevant in the digital age. The efforts largely remain a work in progress, underlining the stark challenges facing the news business.

So far this year, CNN ratings are hovering near 20-year lows. Average prime-time viewers are down about 6 percent to 176,000, compared with 2013, in the audience that attracts the most revenue for news channels, viewers between the ages of 25 and 54. Total day viewers this year are down 7.6 percent, to 122,000, according to Nielsen.

Well, that’s encouraging. But what is Zucker actually doing, you ask?

One change that Mr. Zucker has made is emphasizing breaking news, focusing coverage on just two or three major stories throughout a given day, rather than delivering an all-encompassing, scattershot report of the headlines as was common in the past. The rationale is that viewers are likely to catch other news on the web or on social media. Mr. Zucker leads daily news meetings, unlike past CNN chiefs who delegated the responsibility. Employees called Mr. Zucker a micromanager and said that he sent missives from his BlackBerry at all hours about everything, be it the length of story segments or the graphics that appear on screen.

On Thursday, that approach meant the Ebola outbreak and the Secret Service controversy dominated airtime. This year, CNN was mocked for committing near wall-to-wall coverage to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, but Mr. Zucker has boasted that the network posted better ratings than its rivals during that stretch.

“Never mind we beat the shit out of a dead fucking horse for the better part of a month, look at the ratings!”

That, friends, is the name of the game, and why cable news has, for the past decade or so, been caught in an intractable death spiral into terminal irrelevancy. They don’t care about content. They don’t care about integrity. They don’t care about any of the things that makes journalism journalism. They’ve got one thing on their mind: ratings. And they will do anything — and I do mean anything — to get your eyes glued on their screen, no matter how contradictory it may be to their erstwhile mission to inform the public.

But there’s turd hidden in Jeff Zucker’s tasty ratings sandwich:

CNN has company in the ratings struggle, as the total audience for cable news has been on the decline for the last several years. This year, MSNBC has suffered a 12 percent drop, to 184,000, in average prime-time viewers ages 25 to 54, compared with last year. At Fox News, which continues to dominate the category, that figure has fallen 1.3 percent to 298,000, according to Nielsen. The urgency for Mr. Zucker to fix CNN became more pressing after its parent, Time Warner, rejected a takeover effort by 21st Century Fox this summer. Time Warner must now prove to its shareholders that it can grow on its own and deliver profits. As a result, the company’s Turner Broadcasting System division, which includes CNN, is in the middle of job reductions and other cost-cutting initiatives.

Coming in second doesn’t mean quite as much when ratings are in decline overall. Everyone — not just CNN — is losing viewership.

That’s because all three of the major news networks — CNN, FOX, and MSNBC — all have the same problem: they suck.

FOX is tarnished goods; if you’re not conservative, you don’t watch them. On the other side of the spectrum, MSNBC’s spurious claim to liberalism is offset by a rogue’s gallery of center-right nimrods like Chris Matthews, incompetent halfwits like Luke Russert, and weaksauce softballers like Chris Hayes. CNN’s problem is, and Jeff Zucker seems completely oblivious to this fact, is that they are trying like mad to be the middle ground between FOX and MSNBC. This just in: the middle ground between “bullshit” and “stupid” is “stupid bullshit”.

And that’s CNN in a nutshell.


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