This isn’t CNN’s prime time

Campbell Brown felt a mounting sense of futility as average viewership for her prime-time CNN show sank to around 500,000 this year.

“I was watching the ratings in conjunction with trying to balance my family life, and I was really struggling to do it successfully,” the anchor, who has two young sons, said last week.

So several months ago, Brown took an unusual step and asked CNN to be released from her contract. She announced her decision this month, releasing a strikingly candid statement saying CNN needed to try something else at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

“The simple fact is that not enough people want to watch my program,” the anchor wrote.

“I had real clarity about it,” Brown, who plans to remain on air until the network picks her successor, added last week. “I feel it was not only the right thing for me but the right thing for CNN.”

But the right move for CNN remains an open question. The pressure is on the network to come up with a successful program in a time slot that has been a thorny problem for the last decade. While Fox News and MSNBC showcase their top talent at 8 p.m., CNN has cycled through three hosts since Greta Van Susteren left for Fox News in 2002. She was followed by Connie Chung, whose show was canceled after less than a year by new management who viewed it as too tabloid, and then Paula Zahn, whose low-performing newscast was dumped in 2007 when Brown was lured from NBC News.

Brown was initially optimistic that a straight news program could compete against the sharply opinionated shows put on by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann at that hour. But she sounds decidedly more pessimistic now.

“People are drawn to the echo chamber, and they want to have their opinions validated more often than they want to have their opinions challenged,” said the anchor, who has not said what she plans to do next. “And trying to present an unbiased perspective is simply harder.”

The difficulties that CNN faces at 8 p.m. are endemic of the broader challenges confronting the network. CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein has cast it as the only nonpartisan cable news channel, eschewing the bluntly opinionated hosts that dominate prime time on the other news channels.

But that tack has failed to stave off the ratings declines that CNN perennially suffers after major news events. The network’s viewership has fallen steeply since the 2008 election, shedding 40% of its weekday prime-time audience this year compared with the same period in 2009, according to Nielsen. That puts it in third place in prime time behind top-rated Fox News, which is down just 1%, and second-place MSNBC, which has dropped 18%. (CNN still beats MSNBC across the entire day.) Meanwhile, the audience at 7 p.m. Eastern has shrunken since March, when anchor John King took over the slot once occupied by Lou Dobbs.

CNN’s woes come at an awkward time: On Tuesday, the network will mark its 30th anniversary, a milestone that is set to pass with little fanfare on the air.

Former CNN executive Bob Furnad said the cable channel can no longer claim to be “the world’s most important network,” as it was dubbed by founder Ted Turner.

“Clearly, they don’t have any appointment viewing,” said Furnad, who now teaches broadcast journalism at the University of Georgia. “They’ve paid a lot of money, in some cases to getting stars from the outside and in other cases developing their own stars, and these people have not clicked.”

CNN executives are frustrated by the focus on prime-time ratings, stressing that the time period contributes slightly less than 10% to the overall revenues of the network. At an investor conference Thursday in Manhattan, parent company Time Warner released internal documents showing that CNN makes about the same amount of money from digital sales as from prime-time advertising.

But there’s deep concern that the ratings fall-off has hurt the network’s image, said sources inside CNN who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. Klein is immersed in conversations about the 8 p.m. slot and has been meeting with a parade of prospective talent. One idea being strongly considered is a political debate show in the same vein as “Crossfire,” one of the first programs Klein axed when he joined the network. A possible host: former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned from office in 2008 after getting caught in a prostitution scandal. That prospect is viewed dimly by many news veterans inside the organization. (Spitzer is also in talks with MSNBC, where he’s filling in all this week for host Dylan Ratigan.)

A CNN spokeswoman declined to comment on speculation.

It will likely be weeks if not months before CNN launches a program as executives strategize about how to inject more passionate viewpoints into the coverage without eroding the network’s commitment to nonpartisanship.

The perception that the channel has hit a rough patch frustrates CNN staffers, who note with pride that it remains one of the most muscular news organizations in the country at a time when other media have slashed staff.

But some employees complain that the drive to enliven programs often leads show producers to give airtime to pundits over reporters. They say there is also a demand for reporters to provide stories with built-in action, such as Anderson Cooper’s on-the-ground coverage of the earthquake in Haiti, a level of drama not easily matched.

And while they are heartened when executives publicly defend the value of news, several staff members said they also want to know CNN’s plan to boost the viewership.

“It’s a great relief to hear that we’re doing something worthwhile,” said one longtime employee, who declined to be named publicly criticizing the leadership. “But we need other people to think that too.”