Building a Better CNN

The ratings at the network have not stood as tall as this logo for quite a few years.

In which your writer thinks about how to make watching (American) CNN a non-masochistic endeavor.

This time last year CNN seemed like it was finally awaking from its decade-long ratings doldrums. The first half of the year was punctuated by many of the journalistic set-pieces that make cable news worth watching. From the uprising in Egypt, to the western intervention in Libya, the tsunami in Japan and the rather out-of-the-blue killing of Osama Bin Laden, the months were full of bold transitional graphics (“EGYPT UPRISING”, “TARGET LIBYA”, “LIBIYA WAR”, “BATTLE FOR TRIPOLI”, etc.), “BREAKING NEWS” markers that were actually justified, and plenty of reports from international correspondents not normally seen by American audiences of the channel.

One can tell CNN considered the Libya conflict an important topic by the size of the font here.

Reports were that CNN had turned a corner. I remember catching a story on NPR about the rejuvenation expected at the network under the new news chief, Mark Whitaker. There was talk about how CNN’s newsgathering muscle was on display covering the upheaval in the Middle East,  and Fareed Zakaria, host of what easily is the best program on CNN (Fareed Zakaria GPS) spoke about how he saw CNN improving:

“CNN is getting smarter, and you can feel it in the stories,” Zakaria says. “You can feel it in the depth with which they’re covered, the kinds of people in terms of guests who are brought on air, the ways in which issues are discussed.”

But then the year of news passed, and the improvement in CNN’s news coverage passed along with it. Much as I hoped the CNN commentator was noticing a real improvement, the channel has reverted back to its tendency to cover bullshit (or cover actually important news events through an idiotic prism). This Monday I was flipping channels when I caught a segment on a guest-hosted edition of Erin Burnett’s program in which noted rocker and reality TV star Gene Simmons was brought on for political analysis. Needless to say the remote continued to flip.

Fast forward to this year. Another month of low ratings (and an apparent 20-year low) has brought forth more handwringing, and more pleas from executives that a new course will be charted.

What to do about this? 

I would argue that  CNN should take those words seriously. At this point, perhaps the only thing the channel should do is give up in trying to beat Fox and MSNBC. To this end, the bosses at Time Warner would do well to cut back on CNN/US as a separate channel and turn the CNN slot on our cable systems into a semi-simulcast of CNN International.

Let me flesh that out a bit. CNN should still have a few hours of content specifically targeted at American audiences; keep a morning show, keep some of the primetime lineup (much of which is already simulcast internationally), and keep the Sunday morning programs (especially GPS and Reliable Sources). The real payoff of dumping most of the American CNN schedule is losing the mediocre off-peak programming, most of which is branded under the CNN Newsroom banner.

Many of the editions of the rolling new program consist of arguments between partisan talking heads, “in-depth” analysis of the latest piece of political flotsam (“What does this comment by Mitt Romney’s deputy Alaska campaign manager mean for the presidential race?”), and segments that are very clearly time fillers. If you look closely, one may notice that most of the CNN segments that are held up by late night comedians like Jon Stewart for mockery] come from this mid-afternoon wasteland.  Also get rid of The Situation Room. The program would be alright were it not for its air of manufactured urgency. In fairness, a program that titles itself after the White House’s center for managing worldwide emergencies probably has that built in.

CNN has more staff then if MSNBC and Fox News combined their entire payroll. Twice over. There is truly no excuse for CNN to waste time telling us what’s going on in the Twitter-verse. (stats from an FCC report)

As Fareed said in the earlier mentioned NPR story, CNN should see its competitors as outlets like the New York Times, NPR, and the BBC. That CNN already exists. Looking at CNN International, which directly competes with both Al Jazeera English and BBC World News (and predates even the latter in international broadcasting by nearly a decade) shows a channel that actually puts the superior international newsgathering infrastructure of CNN to work. Programs on the channel include a daily business program entirely devoted to the BRIC emerging markets, Christiane Amanpour’s interview program, and 3 weekly feature programs focusing on the African continent (almost certainly an hour and 15 minutes more than all three American cable channels devote to the continent on a weekly basis). The channel is not perfect by any means, but it stands head and shoulders above the US version.

Look at the difference in international newsgathering ability. CNN has bureaus in places the average person probably couldn’t point to on a map. (from the same FCC report as above)

Aside from incorporating a true international focus, CNN should improve its political coverage of the United States. During primetime, instead of interminable arguments between party “strategists”, perhaps have reports on the ground of battleground states, and in addition to talking to voters, perhaps do more stories on the issues of the campaign—the actual issues, not the issues through the lens of gaffe-type comments by campaign surrogates. Perhaps the channel could have a program covering political races locally, a compilation of reports on battleground races from CNN’s large network of affiliate stations. And, of course, try to do something about the “leave it there” problem. In the situations when you must have talking heads on, at least have the producers do deeper research and call them out on false talking points. The fact that they don’t perhaps indicates that even the producers see these segments as time-filler in the program.

I’m not delusional about cable news. It’s never going to be NPR on TV, for example, and the medium kind of lends itself to the things we all hate about the 24 hour news cycle—hyping non-stories, an emphasis on creating “moments” rather than journalism, but the cable news network, at its best, is capable of using its larger news-hole to illuminate a wide range of global stories in an easily digestible format. 

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