CNN Starts Year on Upswing: Is It Too Soon for a Victory Lap?

Courtesy of CNN

Double-digit ratings growth has it firmly in second place, but some argue its strategy is still too scattered.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Since taking the reigns at struggling CNN two years ago, Jeff Zucker has been marred by headlines blasting his network's low ratings and obsession with downed airplanes. But the narrative isn't quite so dire these days. CNN's January, its seventh consecutive month ahead of MSNBC, brought it within the closest reach of Fox News Channel's unchallenged primetime demo crown as it has been in six years. Naysayers will cite the weeks-long FNC blackout among Dish subscribers (about 13 percent of pay TV subs) as one reason for the close race.

Still, CNN came within 50,000 viewers of FNC's showing with adults 25-to-54, thanks to improvements on both sides of its programming plan: strong showings during breaking-news coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack and the State of the Union address and all-time highs for original series Morgan Spurlock Inside Man. Granted, CNN still is dwarfed by FNC's massive viewership, but 63 percent year-to-year growth in daily audience is something few would have predicted last January. And while the network is eager to take that victory lap -- see CNN's full-page ad Jan. 29 in The New York Times, chiding MSNBC's Joe Scarborough for his ratings slide -- others call it premature. "The major story in the cable news wars in the short term is the collapse of MSNBC rather than the advance of CNN," says media analyst Andrew Tyndall. "In the long term, I do not believe that the two contradictory strands of the Zucker experiment are sustainable. January's data offer no clues as to which direction will win out."

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