Update: 06/14/10

USA Today weighs in “At CNN, perhaps a little, um, creativity is in order.”

Here is a great example of why CNN is losing viewers at such a rapid rate. Comparing YouTube videos of Justin Bieber and a prairie dog? Really? This has to be some of the lamest content on a news channel ever – which in my opinion is precisely why CNN has dropped off the ratings chart. Just awful.


There have been a few recent articles in the NY Times and The Independent that discussed the recent “precipitous decline in ratings” for CNN and its prime time programs. On the other hand FOX News has been increasing viewers at an exponential rate. The folks at Newsy also have a short video on the subject.

My question is where are all the CNN viewers going? Certainly not all of these viewers are switching to FOX? My personal view of CNN is that it has become a shell of its former illustrious self as THE cable news outlet.

There was a day when a major news event was occurring that you would instantly turn to CNN. Case in point, in August, 1997 I was watching a local TV channel when a news flash came on stating that Princess Diana had been in a car accident. My first reaction was to change the channel to CNN to get the most up to date and accurate reporting. For the next week CNN dominated as my news source for the latest on the unfolding story. And so it was for most big news events – you automatically turn to CNN.

Since the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986, CNN began its climb to the top of the news world. The 1990-91 Gulf War meant huge ratings for CNN. During that period I certainly remember keeping CNN on most of the time to see the latest updates. During the LA riots in April 1992, CNN was the best source for the unfolding chaos that ensued. Through the 90’s and early 00’s CNN continued to set the standard for what a 24 hour news channel was all about. So what happened? In a word, politics.

When Rupert Murdoch decided to carve out an audience on the right for his new FOX News Channel he changed the way the news was covered. Since the late 60’s and into the 70’s the evening news at the major networks had to turn a profit. It was no longer a public service, the News was like any other program; it was vehicle to gather as big a viewing audience as possible. So the three major networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) battled for audiences through reporting and investigative journalism (albeit as an adjunct to the newspapers). CNN took that strategy and expanded it to the 24 hour format. Then FOX News took it a step further and decided to emphasize opinion and controversy as the pillars of its audience gathering strategy. And has it worked exceedingly well.

FOX News decided that real journalism and investigative reporting weren’t as important (or as good at) gathering audiences as were the notable opinion makers who could generate a lot of controversy and in turn gather large audiences. It was entertainment pure and simple. Bill O’Reilly, formerly of the tabloid show Inside Edition, and his show The O’Reilly Factor now dominates as the highest rated show across all cable news outlets. It’s all about opinion and generating controversy rather than presenting the news with facts and equal balance for both sides. (And no, there is nothing “Fair and Balanced” about FOX News – it’s more propaganda than news in many cases.) At any rate, when you add in Hannity, Glenn Beck and Greta Van Susteren, CNN has nothing to compete. Larry King and Anderson Cooper do not even come close in ratings. (I will give Anderson Cooper some credit for his reporting in Haiti which was good, but like all networks that story has passed – as everyone predicted.)

As reported in the Independent’s article: “CNN’s most famous prime-time show, Larry King Live, lost 43% of its viewers in the first three months of this year, compared to the first quarter of 2009, ending up with 771,000. Compare that to Fox News’ most-watched show, The O’Reilly Factor, which averages 3.65m viewers. The poor ratings performance raises questions about the wisdom of CNN’s strategy to position itself as a neutral and high-minded alternative to the politically partisan broadcasting of its rivals.”

So back to my question. Where are all the former CNN viewers going? Certainly not all of them have instantly decided to turn to FOX? According to the latest reports that’s indeed where they are going. Really? Yes, there are so many choices out there that CNN may have just become a “has been” in the news industry. So what can CNN do to turn the tide? Obviously the current “neutral style” is lame, hence the exodus of viewers, but what format would work better? You have MSNBC on the left (which is also lame in ratings) and FOX News on the right. I guess The Tea Party and the Republicans are more prone to this format and the moderate to left leaning audiences appear to be more spread out in their TV news viewing habits?

Can CNN become a real news organization again? The larger question of paying for more investigative reporters and having news bureau’s across the globe just isn’t profitable anymore so it’s unfortunately not an option. (Even Christiane Amanpour has decided to move to ABC. In my opinion, she was the best reporter CNN had and the cable network will be hard pressed to replace her caliber of talent.) As everyone knows, the major newspapers are also facing serious decline, but it’s not the same as to why CNN has fallen so to such a low.

Maybe former CNN viewers are more inclined to go online? But FOX viewers are online as well. Are people just that bored and tired of CNN? Why after all this time would a moderate to left leaning individual suddenly turn to FOX? Maybe they’re checking out PBS Newshour or just listening to NPR? Some may just watch the C-SPAN call-in shows in the morning? Although the ratings say otherwise, I guess I’m just not that convinced that CNN has been losing viewers only to FOX.

So it appears that politics has changed news to an entertainment and opinion format and that has become the undoing of CNN. I would agree that CNN has lost its position as the best source for news and much of that has to do with its lame programming and lack luster reporting. I am not sure what the top brass can do to change the fortunes of the once mighty CNN? They will need to find a new strategy pronto because at this current rate of losing viewership they will be out of business soon and that would be sad.  News should be about presenting facts and events in a format that is neutral (like the way the big networks used to present news) and let the viewer decide and be the opinion maker. Obviously that format isn’t profitable, so we may be left to seeing news as entertaining and controversial rather than as the threads of history being woven together.