Case Study: CNN Signals an Image Change

With its April ratings reaching their lowest point in a decade and primetime ratings the lowest in two decades, CNN’s reputation as the best source for hard news seems to no longer be enough. But rather than adopting a reputation for partisanship like those that have helped MSNBC and Fox News attract larger audiences, the Time Warner-owned network is attempting to expand its range beyond the realm of breaking news.

CNN continues to be the first place audiences go for serious news coverage. It beat its rivals’ ratings the night of the last presidential election and saw better numbers during this year’s primaries and debates and last year’s Egypt coverage. But its ratings rise and fall with the news cycle. “It does have a great reputation and a great global brand name for the casual news viewer,” former CNN researcher Brad Adgate told TVNewser. “The news is still the star at CNN and it isn’t necessarily the star at other cable news networks.”

Expanding Into Areas Beyond Its Core Strength

The network’s recent acquisition of globetrotting chef Anthony Bourdain from the Travel Network and anchor John Berman from ABC News, as well as its decision to turn to more outside producers for its documentary programs, suggests that CNN is aiming to smooth out its ratings roller coaster by expanding into areas beyond its core strength. It clear CNN does not want to give up its reputation for hard news. In the Wall Street Journal, Time Warner executives stressed “that ratings aren’t the only measure of the channel’s value, pointing to its reach online and overseas and its status as the outlet that viewers turn to when there is big news.” Its revocation of a job offer to the Fox News producer responsible for a controversial anti-Obama video indicates that CNN won’t trade in that status for the more politically charged reputations that have worked for its competitors.

But with these moves, are they leveraging their brand, or diluting it? CNN Worldwide VP Mark Whitaker described Bourdain as “a great addition to CNN’s team as we continue to broaden our coverage of news that impacts our audience’s lifestyles,” and Politico speculates that Berman’s addition to CNN’s “Early Start” morning program “may also signal an effort to move the tone of the program away from the news desk and toward the informal, kitchen-table model that has been so successful for MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe.’”

The Experts Weigh In

The New York Times’ Brian Stelter highlights the fact that CNN is still performing well financially, but he’s not alone in acknowledging that it ranking against other networks “drives public perception — and employee pride — and declines there may gradually damage CNN’s networks as a whole.” Talking to TVNewser, CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld offers a similar perspective: “CNN is the flagship of the entire CNN brand, and if it sinks it may destroy the entire organization.” Last month Poynter.com summarized a few other takes, including that of NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who wrote last year that “defining itself as ‘not MSNBC’ and ‘not Fox’ begs the question of what CNN actually is.”

We don’t know how successful CNN will be in expanding its programming, but building upon its existing strengths and preserving its core values clearly seems like the correct move, especially when MSNBC and Fox News are already known for slanting to the left and right. Bourdain may burnish the network’s image as a cultured, global source, and Berman will contribute to its reputation for news coverage, even if his approach is softer. Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent hinted that more changes could be on the horizon, so it will be interesting to see how CNN’s reputation evolves as more faces (and programs) come and go.

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