NEW YORK -- Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama aren’t the only ones courting swing voters as the 2008 campaign shifts into its next phase. The ferocious battle for cable news viewers is moving into its own general election mode -- and CNN is striving mightily to keep its primary winning streak going.
The cable news network was the biggest beneficiary of the drawn-out Democratic primary, averaging 1.11 million prime-time viewers this year, a 50% boost over the same period last year. It’s the best performance by the channel since the invasion of Iraq in early 2003.
In all, CNN gained an average of 368,000 prime-time viewers through June 1, compared with Fox News’ 190,000 and MSNBC’s 224,000, according to Nielsen Media Research.
But even as its ratings swell, the network faces a rising challenge from MSNBC, which is riding high on the sharp-edged opinions of hosts such as Keith Olbermann, an outspoken Bush critic. And it still has not caught up with dominant Fox News and its popular right-leaning commentators.
To maintain its momentum, CNN is trying to seize the middle ground and distinguish itself from its rivals’ opinion-laden programming, even with the outspoken Lou Dobbs on its schedule.
“Get the facts from the only news channel to give you all sides,” declares a promotional spot on the network. “No spin. No affiliation. No agenda.”
“The mood of the country today I think is aggressively independent,” said Jon Klein, president of CNN/U.S., over lunch in his Time Warner Center office on a recent afternoon. “And what they’re looking for are answers, not pat talking points generated by the party headquarters.”
“The conventional wisdom up until now has been the more opinionated the better. Our competitors are doing that. . . . We’ve really tried hard to differentiate ourselves as the real news network.”
But it’s an open question as to how CNN will fare when the 2008 race ends and the network confronts its perennial challenge: keeping viewers when the news recedes.
“Cable viewers seem to want big, broad, ideological personalities,” said Aaron Brown, the new anchor of PBS’ “Wide Angle,” who left CNN in 2005 after he was replaced by Anderson Cooper. “It’s an opinion-driven medium. In November, the game resets, and I’m not sure it resets in a way that’s advantageous to CNN.”
CNN’s attempt to cast itself as the network for independent viewers comes after Klein has spent the last three years drastically overhauling its lineup. Among other moves, he jettisoned the show “Crossfire” and created a news-heavy afternoon block called “The Situation Room,” anchored by Wolf Blitzer.
Most recently, he replaced Paula Zahn, host of the network’s flagging 5 p.m. Pacific time hour, with Campbell Brown, an NBC veteran known for her news chops. The time slot has long been CNN’s weakest link: It gets trounced by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and has been beaten by MSNBC’s Olbermann since December 2006.
Since coming on the air in March, Brown’s show -- dubbed “CNN Election Center,” for now -- has been nearly exclusively focused on the presidential race. Ratings are up 34% over the same period last year, not including primary night coverage, though the show still lags behind its competitors.
Brown said she thinks viewers will come.
“I believe there is an audience that wants more than to just have their own opinions validated,” she said.
CNN takes a very different tack the hour before Brown’s show, however, when Dobbs rails against illegal immigration.
“He stands out from among the anchors, whether it’s Wolf or Anderson or Campbell, who are pretty neutral,” said Charles Bierbauer, a veteran CNN correspondent who is now dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications and Information Studies. “Lou has a very different stance, and that’s kind of jarring.”
“Lou Dobbs Tonight” remains a high-performing show for the network, though MSNBC’s 4 p.m. repeat of “Hardball” beat it in May in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic coveted by advertisers.
Klein acknowledges that Dobbs is “an opinionated guy” but argues that he’s also “a raging independent,” which is thematically consistent with the rest of CNN.
“He’s all about holding officials accountable for their actions,” he said. “So in many ways, he fits into a network that is all about independence.”
Still, CNN has not made him a central part of its 2008 campaign coverage. Dobbs anchored the lead-up to primary night returns in his usual time period but was not part of the Blitzer-helmed prime-time coverage.
When asked about MSNBC’s decision to have opinionated hosts such as Olbermann and Chris Matthews function as its main anchors on primary nights, Klein called it “a slippery slope.”
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about or analyzing their decisions,” he added. “They’ve tried a lot of different things over the years. They’ll probably try something different next year.”
That drew a heated response from Phil Griffin, the NBC News executive who oversees the cable channel.
“That’s an outrageous statement, but it fits CNN, which is living in the past,” he said. “The last two years, MSNBC has been focused and has figured out who and what it is. . . . For the first time, this is a three-way race. If he’s not scared now, he better start getting scared.”
Rival network executives argue that much of CNN’s ratings bounce this year is due to its widely watched debates, helping it beat Fox News in the key advertising demographic (ages 25 to 54) in the first quarter of this year.
There’s no question CNN was buoyed by the extended Democratic primary season (the network won the key demographic 15 out of 17 primary nights). But it has had some trouble retaining the new viewers who have tuned in. On Super Tuesday, for example, CNN averaged 3.65 million total viewers in prime time but drew an average of 1.3 million in prime time the following week.
When the campaign season ends, Klein admits, the cable news audience will likely ebb. But he maintains CNN will hold on to viewers by bringing its “exuberance and expertise” to such issues as healthcare and the economy. In case the presidential race slows down later this year, the network is readying a slew of documentaries, including new installments of “Black in America” and “Planet in Peril.”
If it all sounds very serious-minded, there’s a reason.
“The secret for us has been weaning ourselves from tabloid stories,” Klein said. “Why else would you go to a news channel, if not to better inform yourself?”
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Cable news gains so far this year
The competitive Democratic presidential primary lifted the ratings of all three cable news networks this year, although CNN, which hosted four much-watched debates, gained the most viewers. It also enjoyed the biggest boost among 25- to 54-year-olds, the demographic most important to advertisers.
Prime-time viewership, total viewers (though June 1)
Fox News this year: 1.69 million
Fox News last year: 1.50 million
CNN this year: 1.11 million
CNN last year: 738,000
MSNBC this year: 706,000
MSNBC last year: 482,000
Prime-time viewership, 25- to 54-year-olds (through June 1)
Fox News this year: 384,000
Fox News last year: 362,000
CNN this year: 371,000
CNN last year: 232,000
MSNBC this year: 289,000
MSNBC last year: 189,000
Source: Nielsen Media Research