CNN Deathwatch: Part 1

 

It’s all falling apart, at CNN. Larry King is leaving, Elliot Spitzer is coming in, ratings are down. Broadcast news is having its own slow meltdown, too. It lost one million viewers last year. And another million are probably out the door this year, too.

Then comes this news, from Goldman Sachs:

Yesterday Goldman Sachs upgraded News Corp. stock from “neutral” to “buy,” and raised its price target from $15.15 to $17.At the heart of that report was Fox News, which Goldman says is likely to negotiate a subscription fee in the vicinity of $1.25 per subscriber when it renegotiates deals with some carriers later this year.

Subscription fees are what the cable outfits pay the network for the right to carry the programming. You can raise them when you’re offering a cable outfit something their subscribers really want, like Hannity and Beck and O’Reilly and the rest of the Fox News programming. If you’re not doing that — if, say, you’re putting on Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper, you’re in big trouble.The story of how CNN went from market leader to life support, and how the broadcast news operations made themselves irrelevant, should be taught in business schools for years to come. You can make pots of money in television news. Fox News does just that. Why is everyone else in that business failing so utterly?

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I agree with Andrew, most broadcast news stations are dying because they selectively choose stories to reflect the liberal narrative with which they are comfortable. CNN, however, is even worse.

    My firm plays CNN in the lunch room and the programming is horrendous. Has anyone else noticed that half CNN’s daytime news consists of Facebook stories and blog postings? CNN is worse than biased, it is incompetent.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Rob Long: Fox kills everyone, all over the dial. They cleverly use their ratings superstars to promote the rest of their (cheaper) product, which is what people do in the television business.

    On that we agree. And look, Fox is an incredibly savvy operation, even if I wouldn’t broadcast some of their stuff — again I think of the 1:11 mark here — no matter how many millions it made. But there are trade-offs to be made between news & entertainment, and Fox owes lots of its success to choosing entertainment.

    “Why is everyone else in that business failing so utterly?” It’s partly because conservatives were hugely under-served in the market for infotainment. MSNBC had less success trying to seize the liberal equivalent. And CNN was left with what? It can’t just copy Fox. Nor can it aim more entertaining content at centrists, who have lots of other politically palatable options. What other conservative infotainment options do Fox viewers have?

    CNN’s problem: it’s differentiated as sober news — changing would attract new viewers but cost its base. And the market for sober TV news is shrinking. I never watch CNN. I read stuff.

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  3. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Jay Rosen and Ross Douthat had an interesting conversation awhile back on how to save CNN. My own take was that they need to exploit the fact that they broadcast on a visual medium, and turn themselves into a network that runs a lot more compelling pieces from far flung freelancers.

    Rob writes, “You can make pots of money in television news. Fox News does just that. Why is everyone else in that business failing so utterly?”

    But that isn’t exactly right. Fox News doesn’t make pots of money on television news, it makes its money off of infotainment. That isn’t a knock on their news programs, which I don’t watch, and therefore can’t judge. It’s just an observation that the moneymakers at Fox are folks like Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and maybe even Sarah Palin: folks who pontificate rather than report. They’re not news broadcasters anymore than Jon Stewart, who also manages to make heaps of money.

    New gathering is expensive. Opinionated talk is cheap. Is Glenn Beck a bigger moneymaker than Campbell Brown because he is a more trustworthy news man?

    Clearly not.

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  4. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Breitbart put it best. It’s not your business model that sucks, its you that suck. It doesn’t matter how many people follow you on twitter or how many funny videos you can mooch off of youtube. If you’re losing subscribers and you’re losing money, you’re doing something wrong. So either the people at Fox and WSJ are satanic seducers or maybe, just maybe there’s something wrong with you. And maybe what talk radio and Newscorp have to offer resonates with people.

    WSJ has something like 600 reporters on their payroll. NYT has more than 1000. Why is it then that WSJ is showing a 70 million profit in a down economy when newspapers are closing down left and right?

    That’s why they like to knock down conservatives, because the numbers are on our side. Kinda hard to argue with cold hard math. So they call us racists, demagogues, all manner of things because we don’t agree with them, and apparently most of the nation doesn’t either.

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  5. Profile Photo Editor
    @RobLong
    Conor Friedersdorf: My own take was that they need to exploit the fact that they broadcast on a visual medium, and turn themselves into a network that runs a lot more compelling pieces from far flung freelancers.

    You’ve just described Current TV, which makes barely a pittance. Not enough to keep Anderson Cooper in slim-cut Prada shirts. Believe me, CNN knows that it’s in a visual medium. But they also know that you can’t just say “more compelling pieces” and expect more compelling pieces, or expect the audience to care. The model you’re describing is best done by the BBC, which doesn’t have to make a dime.

    CNN did in fact get serious, spend money on foreign news, try to become the un-Fox — which was of course silly, because CNN in its heyday, with “Crossfire” and “Larry King” was a tumultuous, rambunctious channel. It was only later, when they got pompous and self-important, that they decided that they were in a “visual medium” instead of what they’re really in, which is the television business.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Editor
    @RobLong
    Conor Friedersdorf: Fox News doesn’t make pots of money on television news, it makes its money off of infotainment…the moneymakers at Fox are folks like Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and maybe even Sarah Palin: folks who pontificate rather than report. New gathering is expensive. Opinionated talk is cheap. Is Glenn Beck a bigger moneymaker than Campbell Brown because he is a more trustworthy news man?

    You’re cherry-picking. The Fox News All-stars, which is a panel show, kills CNN. So does the afternoon news with Shep Smith. Fox kills everyone, all over the dial. They cleverly use their ratings superstars to promote the rest of their (cheaper) product, which is what people do in the television business. And why is newsgathering expensive again? It seems to get cheaper every year, with equipment that’s smaller than a plump quail. And how is opinionated talk cheap? They pay O’Reilly and Beck (and Anderson Cooper and Katie Couric) huge pots of money. Here’s the problem: CNN runs their business like it’s the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which is a wonderful, smart nonprofit television show.

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  7. Profile Photo Editor
    @RobLong

    I read stuff too. I think it’s just easier, frankly, and less herky-jerky. But I’m not sure I buy the idea that CNN is some kind of sober news outfit, the old fuddy-duddy with the standards and the deep thinking, crushed by the brash, tacky challengers. This is a network that made its bones during the first Gulf War — a lot of soft, sensationalistic reports, frankly — and ran wall-to-wall coverage of the OJ Simpson trial (try that on for infotainment!) They invented the “Showbiz Today” hour. Television news can be fun — it has to be fun to make money — and there’s lots of room to expand. The pie gets bigger — that’s what Fox teaches us — and CNN could easily compete, if it just got the combination right. But first, it needs to get the stick out of you-know-where and remember who it really is, what business it’s really in. And I say “remember” because not too long ago, it looked a lot like Fox News. Minus the slight right-ward tilt.

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  8. Profile Photo Contributor
    @AndrewKlavan

    Rob, the retirement of Larry King is tragic news because your parodies of his show in your National Review column are some of the funniest things I’ve ever read. You can’t parody Spitzer. He already is a parody. So what now?

    Oh, and in answer to your question: broadcast news is dying because its liberal bias amounts to lying. What’s the point of watching dishonest news?

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  9. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Rob, you’re right that CNN’s standards aren’t exactly high, nor would an alien observer call them sober. I just think that’s their only relative advantage. And if you were in charge over there, I’m sure you could bring up ratings by making things more entertaining while still doing as well or better on substance. But the cable news business is now won and lost based on ideological niches, and I’m not sure that trying to compete with Fox for the right or MSNBC for the left will be any more successful than trying to win the shrinking center.In defense of my earlier idea, though, I seem to remember numbers from not too long ago when Headline News was beating its parent network CNN.

    But hell, what do I know, I absolutely hate TV news. It’s the repetition that kills me. A big story breaks, so they send a helicopter to get an aerial shot, loop the same 2 minutes of footage they’ve gotten on the ground, repeat the same 3 facts for hours on end, and blather on w/ inane analysis. If CNN fails I won’t miss it.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Editor
    @RobLong

    I agree with you: TV news always seems too loud to me. Too intense. And then that constant crawl below, and sometimes up the side, of the screen? Yikes.

    CNN could easily claw back its audience by putting in what television demands: conflict, cause, passion, and a certain everyman touch. They won’t, though. They’re all too busy tut-tutting the audience and tsk-tsking our taste over Cobb salad.

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