Election 2016: CNN Hires Nearly 40 New Political Reporters in Effort to Boost Ratings
Chief Jeff Zucker is hoping to close the ratings gap with perennial victor Fox News and distance CNN from third-place MSNBC.
This story first appeared in the May 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Hillary Clinton's April 12 reveal might have been the unofficial start of the 2016 presidential race, but the cable news networks — like Clinton herself — have been preparing for a lot longer. CNN in particular, bolstered by recent ratings growth, is determined to boost viewership this election cycle. Chief Jeff Zucker recently bulked up his political reporting roster by nearly 40 heads.
"We have several dozen new employees covering politics for CNN that weren't here six months ago," says network senior vp and Washington bureau chief Sam Feist. "Under Jeff's direction, we're making a significant investment in covering this campaign. Our long-term goal is to build up our political team on TV and digital."
Recent hires include ABC News' Jeff Zeleny, Washington Post alum Nia-Malika Henderson, the L.A. Times' Maeve Reston and Wall Street Journal veteran Sara Murray. Also joining the usual suspects — Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper and John King — in the political fray is Jake Tapper. CNN's chief D.C. correspondent, the first big hire of the Zucker era, will be a focal point during his first presidential campaign since departing ABC News. Tapper's The Lead already has become an election hub, most recently playing host to Republican candidate and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio the day after he formally entered the race.
The hope is that the poaching will help CNN close the ratings gap with perennial victor Fox News and further distance itself from third-place MSNBC. In 2012, FNC averaged 363,000 in the news demo of adults 25-to-54 in the run-up to the re-election of President Obama, while MSNBC averaged 239,000. CNN, which doesn't align itself with either political perspective and suffered lows that year, averaged 189,000.
There recently have been positive signs for CNN. The network wrapped the first quarter as the only cable news net to see year-to-year gains in viewers and the 25-to-54 demo. The release of Clinton's anticipated campaign video also brought a noteworthy ratings win. CNN outperformed FNC by 80 percent in the key demo in the hour after the video went online.
Feist hopes the network's comparatively neutral status on the political spectrum will work to its advantage in a race with no incumbent. "CNN's political coverage is very different in many ways from MSNBC and Fox. We do a lot less conversation and talk," he says. "The American presidential election plays out on cable news."
How the Cable Nets Are Preparing
Fox News Channel
Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly continue to be a winning combo at FNC, first catapulting Kelly to stardom with her 2012 showdown against a returns-denying Karl Rove. The 2014 midterm brought the net another win over even the broadcast networks. Joining Baier and Kelly for ’16 are Shepard Smith, Chris Wallace, Carl Cameron, Ed Henry and John Roberts. FNC gets a leg up on its rivals in August, when it hosts the first GOP debate in Ohio.
Chief Phil Griffin, now reporting to chairman Andrew Lack, acknowledges that change is coming to his third-place net. Hosts Ed Schultz and Ari Melber already have traveled to New Hampshire, Iowa and Florida for campaigns rather than remain in the studio. But mainstays Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews still are expected to play a big role in campaign coverage.
Don’t laugh: The “fake news” network was hugely influential with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as anchors. In 2016, South African Trevor Noah will preside over The Daily Show, raising questions about his U.S. political chops (though the “Indecision” banner will remain and new correspondents will boast political backgrounds). Less risky is Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore, whose skewering of Republicans already has begun.