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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Your Views on the News April 4, 2010

ATC readers and bloggers have talked at length about how CNN can improve, now has put in their two cents on the subject. The following article appeared on their website on March 31st. Click here for the link to the the blog.

How to fix CNN
By: Michael Calderone
March 31, 2010 05:33 PM EDT

The future of CNN, never exactly bright the past couple of years, suddenly looked dire this week when ratings came out showing a 40 percent decline in prime-time viewers since 2009.

Jon Klein, the network's president, has consistently defended its down-the-middle news strategy, despite the increasingly large ratings leads opened up by MSNBC and particularly Fox, with their ideological slants and big personalities.

So is it time for a radical rethinking of “the most trusted name in news,” the network of Larry King, Anderson Cooper, Campbell Brown and Wolf Blitzer? We asked a dozen or so prominent media watchers, former industry executives and CNN personalities for their recommendations.

Their near consensus: It has to change, get more personality, no longer be — as one media critic called it — “the view from nowhere.” Exactly how to do that was not so easy to agree on — and one person we asked, Phil Donahue, doesn’t think the network needs to change at all. But the responses from everyone else broke down into five different approaches.

Bring back “Crossfire”

Ask a couple of former “Crossfire” hosts for a solution to CNN’s ratings troubles, and maybe it’s not a surprise what their answer is: Resurrect their old show.

Both Michael Kinsley and Bill Press — each of whom had stints taking the liberal side of the right vs. left political slugfest — think it’s worth a shot.

By bringing back “Crossfire,” they argue, CNN could continue with its strategy of not falling squarely on the left or the right in prime time but still offer lively opinion on both sides — something it appears viewers want.

Five years ago, one of Klein’s first orders of business after becoming network president was killing off the long-running show, a pioneer in high-decibel political debate that had been the recipient of harsh on-air criticism from "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart just a few months before.

“When he unceremoniously dumped it, Jon Klein said he wanted straight news and not commentary or opinion,” Kinsley told POLITICO. “And now he's got everyone expressing opinions left and right — because that's what people like.’

“’Crossfire’ used to vie with 'Larry King' as the network's No. 1 show — and we beat him on many nights, even though he had us as a lead-in and we had Lou Dobbs,” Kinsley said, adding that he means “the early Lou Dobbs, the boring corporate suck-up, not the new exciting xenophobic Lou Dobbs of legend.”

“We were No. 1,” said Press, a top liberal radio host who was on “Crossfire” from 1996 to 2003. He described Klein’s pulling the plug on “Crossfire” as “one of the biggest mistakes in the history of modern television journalism.”

Forget neutral — create a new identity

Davidson Goldin, the former editorial director of MSNBC, who now runs a communications business in New York, worked at CNN’s cable news competitor as it morphed into a liberal alternative to Fox in the evenings. From that experience, he thinks that “CNN needs to find an identity and own that identity.”

“A news channel trying to build a brand by saying they cover news is like a restaurant trying to become popular by saying it cooks food,” he said.

“What we understood from the get-go was that by focusing on opinion [and] analysis and using topic-area expertise to draw conclusions, we could easily differentiate ourselves from CNN, [which] was so wedded to just regurgitating the facts,” Goldin said.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, author of the PressThink blog, said the choice doesn’t have to be between “the view from nowhere” — what reporters might call "straight down the middle" journalism” — and the Fox News/MSNBC model.

“Maybe the view from nowhere has failed, not because audiences want opinion rather than hard news but because the Voice of God isn't as convincing as it once was,” Rosen said. “Nothing will improve at CNN until the people running the news report consider that viewlessness may not be an advantage, but ideology is not the only alternative.”

Press added that he thinks CNN “is going to have to bite the bullet and do some advocacy programming” because, in his opinion, “there ain’t no room in the middle.”

Viewers, he continued, get their straight news elsewhere and are “looking for opinion in prime time ... anchors with an edge.”

Bring in big personalities

Adding more “edge” in prime time doesn’t necessarily mean rushing out to hire a fire-breathing host from the left or the right. Personalities larger than life, or so normal they stand out, would do the trick.

Michael Wolff, founder of and a Vanity Fair contributing editor, pointed out that “the viewing audience is just less and less interested in traditional television, civic-minded news delivered by what are, in effect, news readers.”

“CNN has to figure out how to make the news either more efficient or more entertaining,” Wolff continued. “These are the two keystones of modern news, and the network is deficient on both counts. I suppose I would try formats that gave you what you need to know in minutes instead of blocks and personalities that had stronger voices — not necessarily ideological voices, but more unique and identifiable ones.”

As for who could fill that role, Wolff said it could be “anybody who doesn't reek of conventional television.”

Wolff noted one of the secrets of Fox News Chief Executive Roger Ailes’s success: “Find people who don't look or sound like what you think television people should look and sound like.”

Aaron Brown, who was replaced in 2005 by Cooper at 10 p.m., said that CNN doesn’t have the “big, broad personalities” who seem to excel these days in the evenings on cable news. Brown included himself in that group, along with Campbell Brown, John King and Cooper.

“If I were at CNN, the thing that would scare me is not that we’re losing but that it’s that reruns are beating us,” Brown said. “At 10 p.m., a 2-hour-old “Countdown” is beating my guy, the guy I have invested millions in [in] promotional dollars.”

Jazz up the broadcast

Atlantic contributing editor Michael Hirschorn, a former top executive at VH1 who founded production company Ish Entertainment, said CNN should step away from “headline-type news,” which has become “increasingly easy to access and, therefore, commodified.”

“What's working right now is news packaged as entertainment,” Hirschorn continued, “which is a tempting route for them to go down and which they've gone down in a toe-in-the-water kind of way.” He pointed out the short-lived comedy news show hosted by D.L. Hughley as an example.

However, Hirschorn said that “it's a gamble they can only take once in earnest.”

“What might yield more rewards is doing a full overhaul of their news operations,” he continued. “Update the look, the language, the production style. If you look at some of the stuff the BBC is doing, it's a lot more nimble, raw, real, less larded with the kind of newsy bushwa Jon Stewart makes fun of. But that would involve firing a lot of producers and on-air personalities, and that's always hard to do."

Hirschorn believes CNN could find success by focusing more on specific audiences, creating “focused shows that serve specific audiences." “’Morning Joe’ may have a small audience, but the people who love it love it,” he said. (While still behind "Fox & Friends," the MSNBC morning show topped CNN, CNBC and HLN in number of viewers last month.)

Mix it up ...

Others suggested everything from tweaking the current lineup — perhaps with a new personality or two — to scrapping it in exchange for something completely different.

If Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy had his way, the network would bring back Aaron Brown at 10 p.m. and move Cooper to 9 p.m.

Kennedy, who also writes the Media Nation blog, said that he likes “the idea of leaving CNN as the sole cable net doing news during prime time” and that he enjoyed it when Brown squared off against Brian Williams’s old 10 p.m. newscast on MSNBC. “They were both terrific, and you could just pick whichever one seemed most interesting on a given night,” he said.

“The 8 o'clock hour is probably going to be a loser no matter what you do, because CNN is up against the heavyweight bout between Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann,” Kennedy said. “Yet it's important to get things off to a good start, since you need a decent lead-in for 9 p.m.”

“Wouldn't it have been great to have a newscast focusing on international news anchored by Christiane Amanpour?” he asked, referring to ABC News’s latest acquisition. “Too late for that.”

Rosen has his own ideas for a 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. lineup.

At 7 p.m., he would rename John King’s show “Politics Is Broken” and focus on “bringing outsiders to Beltway culture and Big Media into the conversation dominated by ... Beltway culture and Big Media.”

Rosen would program “Thunder on the Right” at 8 p.m., a show where a well-informed liberal “mostly covers the conservative movement and Republican coalition and where the majority of the guests (but not all) are right leaning.”

The following hour would be “Left Brained,” a show offering the opposite mix of hosts and guests. And at 10 p.m. would be “Fact Check,” an accountability show with major crowd-sourcing elements” that would cut through “the week's most outrageous lies, gimme-a-break distortions and significant misstatements with no requirement whatsoever to make it come out equal between the two parties on any given day, week, month or season.”

Rachel Sklar, editor-at-large of Mediaite, a media industry website, didn’t call for a return of “Crossfire” but does think one of its last hosts on the right should make a comeback on CNN. Her idea of a good pair: Tucker Carlson and Ana Marie Cox.

Both Carlson, who this year co-founded The Daily Caller, and Cox, currently the Washington correspondent for GQ, have had lively debates on The Washington Post’s website. Sklar described Carlson as “authentic and engaging on air” while noting that Cox has “a built-in audience, thanks to Twitter and [filling in for MSNBC host Rachel] Maddow and the cool-kid cred that CNN seems to crave.”

“They had a good thing going in their WaPo chats, and I bet that would play well onscreen — they’re smart and watchable, and neither of them is particularly afraid to piss anyone off,” Sklar continued. “And while they take the news seriously, they don't take the players — or themselves! — seriously. As a general rule, maybe that's the way to go.”

But don’t screw it up

“If they ‘fix’ CNN to be like Fox and MSNBC, then who will we turn to when we want that breaking news coverage?” Sklar asked. “The breaking news coverage without an agenda?”

Prime time, she noted, is only a “piece of the puzzle,” with the demo — the prized age 25-54 demographic — even smaller.

“Stop for a moment and think about what CNN stands for. It feels pretty important right now,” Sklar said. “So, yes, tinker with the execution, by all means — that’s clearly broken, and there are ways to fix it. But the central mission matters, and I still truly believe there's a market for it.”

Aaron Brown, now the Walter Cronkite professor of journalism at Arizona State University, makes the point that while CNN is taking heat for its prime-time ratings, the network is still a “highly profitable business” overall.

“What they do have to do is endure the fact that each month or week or year, there are going to be stories about how they get their asses kicked,” Brown said. “But as a business, they are doing just fine.”

Indeed, while any network would want to turn a profit and take home bragging rights in the ratings, Brown pointed out that the former is still the primary goal for executives.

“If I had to choose and I’m [CNN Worldwide President] Jim Walton or the Time Warner guys, I’d choose to make a fortune,” Brown said. “If I’m anchoring the show, I’d want to win, or I wouldn’t want to lose to a rerun.”

And then there is Donahue, the daytime talk show pioneer who hosted an MSNBC prime-time show from 2002 to 2003. He said he hopes CNN will weather the current trend in cable news.

“At this moment, their competition is more entertaining than they are,” Donahue said. “And I admire them for holding on and not being seduced by that kind of arm-waving.”

But at this point, for CNN, holding on may not be enough.

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Anonymous said...

Who in their right mind would pick John
King, USA over 360.CNN can't go down
the route that these people are suggesting.
Just doing politics in prime time is not an
option for CNN. How many times have
people posted on this blog how sick we
are of the panels.CNN do not hire David
Shuster.He has had some issues at MSNBC.
How did these guys miss that 360 is now
CNN's top show.I know I will never watch
all politics in prime time. IMHO CNN is
in trouble for not reporting what is going
on but wasting too much time on speculating
about what might happen. That makes no
sense.CNN is still making money and I
don't think a lot of the pundits are sitting
well with CNN viewers.No surprise here.
MSNBC & FNC are not news organizations.
A bunch of middle aged men think more
left vs right is needed at CNN. More
raw and original reporting will save CNN.
I am wondering if CNN is interested in
LIsa LIng. She was standing in for Larry
last night for the hour.CNN does not
need any more talking heads on the payroll.
They need real journalists.CNN can't do
what MSNBC & FNC do, more is expected
from CNN. How is getting out of the news
business good for CNN ? It will not work.
Look at what just happened last night.
The was breaking news of a 7.2 quake
in California and Don Lemon was needed
not a pundit.

Anonymous said...

If I were Aaron Brown, and CNN asked me to come back at 10PM, following the guy I mentored and then lost my job to, I would first spit at Klein and then I'd ask for a LOT MORE than Cooper, if only because Aaron said I TOLD YOU SO, and he lead CNN to #1 after 9/11, and then I'd go to FOX because they are still a lot brighter than CNN is.
And if anyone still says they don't want AC's opinion, they are LYING. We tune in to see him get animated once in a while, to show feeling, not to read the teleprompter like the rest of bimbos at CNN.

Anonymous said...

@8:33AM In all honesty, 360 may look as though it is a top show, but against Olberman or Maddow, AC pales in comparison. Please leave your ATA hat off and try to be objective. I too, am a fan, but he is beginning to lack credibility being everything, and a 190, when last I looked is NOT a good enough demo....and AC is OPPOSITE RERUNS, which was Aaron Browns point.

Anonymous said...

I just saw Gerri Willis on Fox News. I didn't like her on CNN, but you know what, her entire composure has changed. She's confident and even has some enlightening things to bring forth that seemed to disappear completely on CNN. SHE all of a sudden became RELEVANT because now she knows people are actually listening to her OPINION. They may not agree with her but they are LISTENING AND that in itself is comforting. Working in an atmosphere that VALUES your OPINION is important whether you like FOX NEWS or not.

Anonymous said...

CNN has been trying this ideological battle
some nights with Larry King. Judging from
his ratings taking a dive; I would say it will
not work for CNN. That is exactly why I
switched to Rachel Maddow. People watch
CNN for news not for talk.I wonder if CNN
could maybe hire Charlie Rose when Larry
King retires.I think King will be retiring soon.
According to TVN program rankings the
Countdown repeat did not top 360 at 10
for the month of March.

Anonymous said...

All I can say is how come we do not see more
of John Roberts and Don Lemon. Watching John
this morning from West Virginia, I learned he
is an amazing interviewer. The same goes for
Don Lemon this weekend with regards to the
Cali quake.I really don't get why they are on
mornings and weekends.It makes me wonder
if serious journalists have a future at CNN.

Anonymous said...

Why is Lisa Bloom doing the news cut ins on
360? ANother dumb move for CNN that makes
no sense.I see more people are joining the boycott
against CNN for hiring Erick Erickson.It is a real
shame that CNN has lost 4 quality journalists and
seems to be lowering their standards even more.
I could see going after Allison Stewart or Lawrence
O'Donnell but David Suster.Oh wait a minute that
is the new criteria for CNN, the worse you are the
more you have a chance at being given a shot at
a show on CNN. The objective at the network
seems to be let's keep losing viewers.

Anonymous said...

If Larry King Isn't retiring soon, he should be. I think his totals were far worse than they ever were and they are pulling down 360 as a good lead in. Today, people just don't know when to call it quits.
We can't all be Barbar Walters and Larry should be told, it's time to go gently into the've had a long run.

Anonymous said...

CNN needs to look like they are doing fresh
news. Is it me or does it seem as though CNN
is a day late with stories.CNN needs to really
aim for real time news. Look like you are a
24/7 cable news channel. I am starting to
wonder if Morning Joe is up because MSNBC
is live beginning at 5 am instead of tape. You
have First Look and Willie's show for half and
hour after that.It might just be time for Larry
King to call it a career. His show is all over the
place and not really that good these days.
The big question is who will replace King.

Anonymous said...

Why does Larry need to be replaced at all?? CNN needs to revamp. It also needs to use a little common sense.
Today on 360 we saw miners living below the poverty line and right after that AC was talking light heartedly with the author of "The Big Short." This is a best seller about how a few very bright people made billions on Wallstreet while everything else tanked.
If miners were watching for news of their missing loved ones, why oh why would this piece be of interest to them???
I would call myself a marginal investor with a minimum amount of knowledge and I never did or do "short sales." Does CNN have ANY IDEA who their audience IS?

Anonymous said...

CNN's wounds are self-inflicted. Once Ali
Velshi and Rick Sanchez are on the air
you turn a way and won't come back.One
has no history of being a news anchor and
does these goofy segments that does not
look professional or make sense. The other
says he is the face of CNN by constantly putting
his face with the logo and is more concerned
with putting his mug on for 2 hours than the
news.TSR has been completely messed up and
gotten away from it's original intention,which
was to be a combination of old and new
media for news. Next up another political
show. They try to portray John King, USA
as a new type of political show, yet it has
the same formula as all political shows.
Just because you try and make the setting
different it does not fly. Next up is Campbell.
The show has been this at one time and
another thing all the time. The latest lame
segment featuring Roland Martin and
Mary Matlin's take on things.In the
era of FaceBook, YouTube & Twitter
cable news does not control the big
news of the day. They have to strike
an interesting balance between the
big stories of the day,interesting articles
from various mags, newspapers and
books. Use the web to discover what
people are interested in,even take a look
at what stories people are clicking on am wondering if Campbell
is not affecting Larry. She is a very
weak lead in.My goodness people would
rather watch Nancy Grace. Larry King's
show has been going downhill for almost
a year now.360 became panel crazy and
lost many viewers as a result. CNN has
failed to come up with original program
ideas and just copies some of Fox and
MSNBC and that is why they are failing
miserably.If I have seen and heard it
all before, why watch. That is the million
dollar question does CNN know who
their viewers are.It is not that MSNBC
is that good but that CNN is really bad.
I am sorry but CNN has some really
stupid shows and segments that are
totally worthless. There are too many
tools available for CNN's content to
be old and outdated. Hey why not go
anchor free at 8 and make a program
that is sort of like watching news on
the internet. With tabs saying what
the story is and just let the big stories
and interesting news of the day flow
for an hour. You would see animation
with the browser clicking on the icoon
and the story loading with the same
layout as crawl and the
latest updates from Newspulse. I can
use the web and social media to find
better content than I will see all day
long on CNN.CNN looks outdated and
very lazy. Why does CNN insist on
punishing it's viewers with bad shows.
CNN your viewers can't take it any more.

Anonymous said...

There is a must read about CNN on Vanity
Fair.I agree with CNN being a combination
of the big 3,BBC, CBS Sunday Morning and
put Current TV in the mix. One thing that
is pretty clear from the comments is they
don't want CNN to be FNC or MSNBC and
they definitely don't want Nancy Grace.
I hope the management at CNN gets this.
It is the best article so far about CNN. I am
like the lady in the commercial where's the
beef, just substitute news. Today at noon
CNN actually did something different,
Tony Harris did an entire hour on the
Catholic church sex abuse.It made me
think what if CNN dropped the banners
and crawl and actually stop trying to put
catchy phrases and focus more on the
content of the shows things would be
much better. Besides what if I don't like
the banner I will turn. Without all of the
junk on the screen that makes me have
to pay attention and tune in longer.
What really held my attention was the
story about the priest who is speaking
out on the matter. You heard
him in his own words and there were
only words on the screen to progress
the story.I also saw this type of storytelling
used on CNN's You Tube channel for
the group The XX.

Anonymous said...

Don Lemon sat in for Rick and it was very refreshing. But knowing CNN, they didn't even notice.

Anonymous said...

OK, this is what Aaron Brown was talking about. Olberman and Nancy Grace both beat AC in totals according to TVN, yesterday and Olberman was a rerun. That's BAD.

Anonymous said...

CNN looks like it is about to hit rock bottom.
They should never have gone the down the
hate route with Lou Dobbs and others.I think
CNN has to take drastic steps and drop the
pundits. Somehow Ali Velshi moved ahead
of Don Lemon.CNN management does not
notice. Last night CNN was 4th across the
board. One thing CNN had better do is fix
the 8 pm hour.I think people just don't trust
CNN these days for spreading rumors and
lies over the air and not speaking up when
people say outrageous things that are not
true. Instead of making up stuff for a
news story how about actually hitting the
streets worldwide to find some news or
interesting stories that people will watch.
On top of this the rumors about CNN
bringing back Crossfire. That just tells
me why watch CNN.CNN must pivot away
from politics and ideology. Thank goodness
for BBc America. We would not be able to
get real news.I say the clock is ticking on
Jon Klein he made some really bad decisions.

Anonymous said...

There's a good article about CNN Needing to Get Smarter by Andrew Cohen, which appears in this month's issue of "Vanity Fair," on TVN. The author suggests what some of us have said all along. Get rid of the anchors behind the desks, and get them out in the field even if its for 4 minutes briefings about things that are really happening around the world.
He ends by saying that CNN STILL has an audience, but it wouldn't be there for much longer and Mr.Cohen, is right. He hopes, as do we all, that someone at CNN is actually LISTENING.

Anonymous said...

One problem I have with CNN is the stuff on
the bottom of the screen during serious topics.
Last night on Larry King, they were talking about
the deaths of 25 miners and there were words at
the bottom of the screen that said Sandra Bullock
sex tape, Desperate Housewives suit. It was
inappropriate. This happens way too many
times and needs to be corrected. One other thing
I can't understand is that if someone is anchoring
for one hour , why do they need someone to
anchor the cut ins. Why not just have the
news briefs during Larry King?

Anonymous said...

Enough already with CNN's obsession with
the Tea Party & Sarah Palin.I am starting
to think that CNN has connections to the
Tea Party and someone at CNN has ties to
Sarah Palin. Something is not passing the
smell test here.