CNN in pickle with fickle viewers

Neither right nor left, the CNN viewer is more interested in national disasters than national affairs.
(David Horsey / Los Angeles Times)
<i>This post has been corrected, as indicated below </i>

CNN, the network that proved there is an audience for a 24-hour news channel, is struggling to hold onto viewers and stay competitive in the ratings race with Fox News and MSNBC.

Fox has a solid hold on the top spot and has done it by being the relentless voice of opposition to President Obama and the Democratic Party. Though inconstant in the ratings department, MSNBC has created its own identity as the constant critic of Republicans, especially of the tea party variety. Meanwhile, CNN has stuck with its traditional format, delivering the news straight with no mixer of ideology.

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The lesson seems to be that a clear political tilt guarantees a reliable following among people who prefer to watch a news channel that echoes their own biases. This is especially true with Fox’s conservative viewers who think they have nowhere else to go. CNN’s audience, on the other hand, is more fickle. They come and go with the ebb and flow of events. A big storm, a mass shooting, a hot election or a sensational trial will bring in the crowd, but slow news days will leave a lot of empty seats in front of the TV – or will set off a wave of channel surfing that drains away viewers.


CORRECTED, Nov. 8, 2013 at 4:10pm: An earlier version of this column said CNN has lost viewers this year while Fox and MSNBC have seen their numbers increase, and that CNN lags behind its two rivals during primetime. According to the CNN Research and Analytics department, CNN’s total audience Monday through Sunday is up 9% from a year ago while Fox is down 5% and MSNBC is down 17%. The same data show that in primetime CNN is down 12%, Fox is down 16% and MSNBC is down 30% from this time last year.

There is plenty of scuttlebutt about the weakest link in CNN’s evening programming, Piers Morgan. The acerbic Englishman is not especially well-liked by many TV viewers and it appears his exit is in the works. FTVLive, a website devoted to gossip about the TV news industry, reports that CNN boss Jeff Zucker is “actively looking for a replacement for Piers Morgan.” It is being said that Zucker would like to bring in Katie Couric to fill Morgan’s seat.

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CNN’s counterargument to all the gloomy reports is that, unlike Fox and MSNBC, the company is not just a U.S. news outlet. It also includes a worldwide news network, a headline news network, a Spanish-language channel and a major news website. It could also be noted that MSNBC is not exactly soaring like an eagle. Their star, Rachel Maddow, has seen her numbers slip this fall.

The tougher competition is with Fox. The conservative network appears to have a strong new evening draw with Megyn Kelly, whose primetime show is now second only to “The O’Reilly Factor” among the cable news array of opinionated programs.

Still, to put things in perspective, all three cable news networks are frequently matched or bettered in the ratings by a certain pair of “fake” newsmen, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, over on the Comedy Channel. It seems that a big share of the TV audience prefers their news delivered in a punch line.


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