On eve of Larry King exit, CNN tries to paint happy face on record low ratings


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The folks at CNN -- where Larry King will wrap up his talk show Thursday night after 25 years -- must be possessed of some crazy magic. How so? Well, it takes strange alchemy indeed to transform the network’s worst year ever into ratings gold worthy of a news release.

In a bit of holiday sugar sprinkled in reporters’ e-mail boxes Wednesday, CNN bragged that it reaches more than 96 million monthly viewers, the most of any cable news network. Ten million more than Fox News Channel, in fact, and 13 million more than MSNBC. This might lead a casual observer to think that CNN is No. 1, its programming plans are firing on all cylinders and its rivals are left choking on its dust.


But of course, that’s not the case at all. CNN for the year to date is actually mired in third place in prime time, where the most lucrative advertising is, and is a distant No. 2 to Fox News in total-day ratings (1.1 million vs. 435,000 average). In fact, 2010 has been CNN’s worst year since at least the launch of Fox News back in 1996. The network has shed more than one-third of its prime-time viewers, thanks to erosion in King’s ratings and a disastrous start for the talk show ‘Parker Spitzer.’ And it is about to lose in prime time to MSNBC for the first time ever.

So how can CNN boast of reaching more viewers than Fox News or MSNBC? It has to do with the way Nielsen computes ratings. CNN is using what’s known in the biz as a ‘reach figure’ -- that is, not an average but rather an estimated figure of the total number of viewers who tune in for at least a few minutes. This type of metric favors CNN, which historically has done best with breaking news stories, where viewers flip on the channel to see what’s happening and then quickly tune out. However, such a figure doesn’t carry much weight with advertisers, because viewers who watch for six minutes and then leave aren’t likely to see many commercials. And it’s at best a misleading snapshot of what people are really watching.

A CNN spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

-- Scott Collins (Twitter: @scottcollinsLAT)