CNN execs say they plan no imminent changes to primetime despite ratings slide

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CNN executives on Tuesday said they had no imminent plans to change the network’s prime-time line-up despite a steep fall-off in viewership, but suggested they are stepping up efforts to increase the performance of the current slate of shows.

“We always look to make change throughout CNN, we always have, across all of our businesses. As far as any specific plans to make any specific changes in prime time, no,” said CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton in an interview after the network’s upfront presentation to advertisers in Manhattan. “Because there can be changes within what we’re doing. A lot of it is in execution.”

So far this year, CNN has seen a 41% drop in its weekday prime-time ratings compared to the same point in 2009, drawing an average of 727,000 viewers, according to Nielsen. MSNBC has fallen off 24% to 864,000 viewers, while Fox News is up 3% to 2.7 million.

CNN’s slide has triggered a slew of suggestions from outsiders urging the network to reinvent its approach.


Network officials argue that the ratings decline reflects a natural ebbing of interest compared to fascination surrounding President Obama’s first months in office at this time last year. Walton also noted that prime-time on CNN’s U.S. network only contributes about 10% of the overall advertising revenue of the company, which also includes CNN International, and HLN.

“It’s not as dire as maybe some people say,” Walton said, adding: “I’m not satisfied with the ratings, but I’m not concerned.” He also praised the leadership of Jon Klein, president of CNN/U.S., calling him “brilliant” and a “great journalist.”

For his part, Klein said in a separate interview that while he believes CNN’s prime-time shows can do a better job of engaging viewers and keeping them watching longer, he is happy with their quality.

“We don’t have anything to announce,” Klein said when asked of possible changes. “You’re always looking, always, at what we can do better, how we can do it better. But there’s nothing imminent.”

Klein said he welcomes the unsolicited advice about the network’s direction. “I actually love it,” he said. “The more eyes and ears the better. It’s a little bit like being the manager of the New York Yankees, right? Everybody thinks they could do it. Everybody watches and has an opinion because they love us and they want us to do as well as we possibly can.”

Throughout the two-hour presentation to advertisers, held in a theater in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center, executives sought to steer the focus away from prime-time and onto the network’s journalism. But officials also used the program to push back against a spate of negative coverage about its ratings performance, saying the full story about the network’s reach is not being told.

“So much has been written about us lately,” said Greg D’Alba, executive vice president and chief operating officer of advertising sales. “However, is the complete story being told? There’s no way it is.’

“You bet CNN is everywhere,” he added, noting that the network draws 127 million viewers around the world each month. “You bet television is everywhere. That’s the real story.”

Officials described the network as a muscular, indispensable news source in a cable news landscape cluttered with opinion. “We’re the only credible nonpartisan voice left, and that matters,” Walton said on stage.

“Our mission, our mandate, is to deliver the best journalism in the world: firsthand reporting. Incisive analysis. No bias. No agenda,” Klein added several minutes later. “That puts us in the world of cable news in a category of one. Our traditional competitors have abandoned the field.”

That drew a sharp response from Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, which has built its prime-time schedule around left-leaning hosts such as Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow.

“I think what their comments show today is that they haven’t recognized that the world changed around them,” Griffin said. “They have an outdated model and they’re trying to stand by it. We’re many things, but there’s one thing our model does: journalism, facts, analysis and personality, and that’s what viewers want.”

In his presentation, Klein argued that CNN has been on the leading edge of incorporating technology into its programming, citing its use of iReports, Twitter feeds and the “magic touchscreen wall.” “We’ll continue to push the envelope, but we will never abandon our core faith in being the sole nonpartisan cable network in this country,” he said.

CNN devoted much of the program to spotlighting the network’s political reporting, which helped it score a banner ratings year in 2008. Anchor Anderson Cooper, the only prime-time anchor who was on stage, moderated a panel of the network’s political anchors and contributors and also spoke at length about the network’s coverage of the earthquake in Haiti. Later in the show, correspondent Soledad O’Brien previewed her upcoming documentaries about post-Katrina New Orleans and the children of Haiti, among other topics.

The program also included a presentation from HLN, which has remade its prime-time with a slate of opinionated hosts. One of them, Joy Behar, made the morning’s only direct reference to the competition. During a discussion about Conrad Murray, the doctor charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of Michael Jackson, she joked: “Maybe he should just practice on Glenn Beck.”

-- Matea Gold