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Stuck in Third Place, Should CNN Abandon Its “Food Fight” Formula?

Despite its down-the-middle news brand, the network trails rivals Fox News and MSNBC in viewers and weathers daily attacks from the White House as critics bemoan a "clash model" of staging partisan debates that's now "outmoded."

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The panel went from tense to overheated. During a debate held by anchor Don Lemon on Feb. 6, CNN contributor and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli told his colleague, Republican strategist Ana Navarro, that he was “sick and tired of listening to your shrill voice in my ears.” Lemon, looking defeated, pleaded four times to his arguing panelists, “One at a time, please.” The exchange wasn’t the only time that Cuccinelli, representing a pro-Trump perspective, got into hot water for on-air remarks. On Aug. 14, during a panel about clashes in Charlottesville, Va., he told liberal contributor Symone Sanders to “just shut up for a minute.”

These blow-ups, while uncomfortable to watch for some viewers, are increasingly part of the CNN brand. The network has seen its star rise during the first 15 months of Donald Trump’s presidency, but it has largely adhered to the same formula that brought it big ratings, big profits (to the tune of an estimated $1.1 billion in profit last year) and a healthy dose of criticism during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. That means regularly staging “food fights” (in the words of one veteran television executive) that go viral but don’t necessarily make viewers more informed, people inside and outside the company say.

As CNN has become the most visible media target in the current polarized political climate, frequently on the tongue of a president with 50 million Twitter followers, the network’s ratings are still a work in progress. During primetime, CNN is stuck in third place in both total viewers and the key demo (25-to-54), behind the Trump-friendly Fox News and the administration-critical MSNBC. During the first quarter of the year, only Anderson Cooper’s show ranked in a Nielsen list of the top 25 cable news programs as measured by total viewers; Fox News had 15 shows on the list, and MSNBC had nine. Last year, MSNBC overtook CNN in total viewers for total day, defined as the period between 6 a.m. and 6 a.m., a trend that has continued into the first quarter of 2018.

While the three major cable news networks have all benefited from the nonstop newsiness of the Trump administration, the veteran television executive argues that CNN hasn’t gained as much as it should have, especially compared to competitors. “They have real problems,” the individual says. “They’re getting killed by MSNBC, and not by a new lineup on MSNBC, either.”

CNN can point to a 16-quarter-long streak of beating MSNBC in the key demo for total day, as well as demo wins in dayside and the weekend for the first quarter of 2018. The network’s defenders will also tout the scores of major stories the network’s journalists have broken, many of which get analyzed on MSNBC’s airwaves. CNN talent like anchor Jake Tapper and chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta have become bona fide celebrities, with Tapper now a regular on late-night couches. CNN Originals productions have scored in the ratings — a three-part miniseries on the Kennedy political dynasty and the pope won their Sunday evening time slots in March. Online, CNN is one of the most visited news websites in the country, with about 140 million unique visitors in the months of January and February (according to comScore data).

But, despite the positive ratings story CNN can tell, some say the network has suffered by adhering to an “outmoded” formula, according to a longtime veteran producer who was among the more than a dozen insiders interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter for this look at the network.

“That, to me, is why their ratings are suffering,” says Angelo Carusone, president of the left-leaning advocacy group Media Matters for America. “They think that this clash model is somehow good for ratings, and it’s not.”

Former CBS News president Andrew Heyward, though, says it’s shortsighted to cover the cable news wars as a zero-sum sporting contest in which one network’s gain is another network’s loss. But he acknowledges that CNN, while doing “great,” has maybe not thrived as much as Fox News and MSNBC. “There’s a Trump bump for all, but the Trump bump has favored the extremes because cable [news] favors the extremes,” he says. “And CNN is playing the long game, betting that eventually, when the fever breaks, it will gain competitive advantage.”

CNN’s “clash” model is dependent on the pro-Trump contributors for whom the network has become famous. Jeffrey Lord, the first person the network cast in the role, was ousted last summer for using a Nazi salute — he says he did it mockingly — in a Twitter debate. CNN never said why it parted ways with former Missouri Republican Party chairman Ed Martin, but it followed him describing some of his fellow CNN contributors as “black racists” on his radio show. Other contributors and commentators have gone too far but kept their jobs, including Cuccinelli and Jack Kingston, a former Republican member of Congress who suggested on air that the Parkland high school students who planned the March 24 March for Our Lives protests were in cahoots with Hungarian financier and conservative bogeyman George Soros.

“A lot of what CNN is doing is having someone tell you the sky is blue and then having someone else tell you it’s actually purple,” says a longtime veteran producer, who is a “huge supporter” of the network.

What’s clear, from watching the network, is that some of the comments that seem like gaffes end up being self-perpetuating, content-creating machines. On Sunday, March 25, a day after hundreds of thousands of people marched in Washington, D.C., to protest gun violence, former Republican senator — and CNN contributor — Rick Santorum said the Parkland students should instead focus on learning how to respond to mass shootings by learning CPR. The next morning, Santorum’s comments were debated on CNN by Democrats who criticized him and Republicans who were asked if they stand by what he said. On Wednesday, when Santorum finally walked back his remark during a morning interview on CNN, an article summing up his comments was given top billing on the network’s web properties.

At least one CNN employee joined the chorus of critics who mocked the network on social media for giving Santorum a platform and then creating a micro-news cycle based on his poor attempt at punditry. “I cannot get over how stupid this is,” White House reporter Kaitlan Collins said on Twitter. But another CNN anchor defends the network’s decision to give Santorum airtime. “You can’t just have people on that you agree with,” the anonymous anchor tells THR. “People have to be able to debate with decency and be open to ideas that are not their own.”

A longtime senior producer who was not authorized by the network to speak says the Santorum incident was a nothingburger internally, “a controversy in a sea of controversy.” “Even controversies within the network are hard to break through,” the producer says.

Carusone says there’s a dichotomy between the CNN that is represented by the network’s latest marketing campaign and the clash-heavy programming that he says viewers are subjected to at times during the day. By launching a television ad campaign focused on objective truth and real (not fake) news, illustrated by apples — “This is an apple” — and bananas, Carusone says that CNN is “really trying to reassert itself as the adult in the room on cable news.” But, he says, the network is undercutting that premise, even while hiring scores of impressive journalists and regularly breaking major stories. And, he faults the network for continuing to air Trump’s speeches live, as it did during the campaign.

The men and women brought on to the network to do battle on the issues of the day certainly make a full-throated defense of their utility. Republican strategist Rick Wilson, a self-proclaimed “equal opportunity asshole” who takes on both Democrats and Trump-backing Republicans, told a conservative radio host in January that he would “gut [him] like a fish on this show.” Of CNN, he says, “They get attacked for putting pro-Trump people on. They get attacked for putting anti-Trump people on. That’s kind of the sweet spot.” Wilson says that CNN is livening up television, moving away from the “Charlie Rose model” of the past. “The sort of old model of low, monotone talking heads is why it was dull,” he says. “I bring to CNN both that sort of feistiness that makes for good TV but also that substance.”

Paris Dennard, a former staffer in George W. Bush’s White House who is on his third contract with CNN as a (mostly Trump-defending) contributor, has had two extremely tense confrontations on CNN’s air with Wilson. Despite evidence to the contrary, he says he doesn’t think CNN producers pair him up with the goal of creating a viral explosion. “I don’t think it’s their intent to get personal and nasty,” he says. “I do think it’s their intent to have good television and a spirited debate.” When his segments explode on-air, Dennard says he always hears afterward from concerned producers and hosts who apologize and check up on him.

His worldview is a valuable one for CNN’s viewers, he argues. “I could be on another network. I could be on Fox News and sort of preach to the choir, but I’m on CNN,” he says. “I’m proud to be on CNN and to represent a perspective that their viewers might not hear.”

But despite providing balance to the network’s stable of pundits, and undercutting arguments from the right that CNN is anti-Trump, Lord claims CNN’s audience has a “distinct dislike” of the pro-Trump contributors that are brought on. “I would talk to [CNN president Jeff Zucker] on occasion, and he’d say, ‘You’re doing great.’ And on one occasion, he said he was protecting me,” Lord says. “In the quiet of the night, I thought, ‘Why in the world does the president of a network have to protect a commentator?'”

Lord defends Zucker, the man who fired him, and his former employer’s programming choices. “I think some of my friends want to beat me over the head, but I still like Jeff Zucker. … It’s his job to get ratings, and he himself told me that I was helping get their ratings in the 2016 situation,” Lord says.

Unlike Fox News, which has made major changes to its programming lineup in recent months following the departure of several key personalities, CNN has made very few moves. A decision to give personality Van Jones his own, bimonthly show on Saturdays has paid off with news-making interviews with stars like Oprah Winfrey and Jay-Z. And, in mid-March, the network announced that morning anchor Chris Cuomo would move permanently to the 9 p.m. hour, following a monthlong trial of his Cuomo Primetime show earlier this year, setting up a competition with cable news titans Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow.

Zucker, who built a reputation as a master programmer while running the Today show, NBC and then parent company NBCUniversal, might just have more programming changes up his sleeve. Zucker has brought in onetime Today executive producer and morning television legend Steve Friedman as a consultant, THR has learned. (Friedman did not respond to an emailed request for comment, and a CNN spokeswoman said she wasn’t quite sure what Friedman was working on.)

Television industry analyst Andrew Tyndall says that CNN is “not in a crisis” and does not need to make “major changes” to the lineup. He also thinks CNN has been wise to shoot for the ideological center, which he says gives the network a base level of breaking news-hungry viewers. “It doesn’t make them skyrocket in the ratings at any point, but it absolutely means they’re not going to plummet in the ratings,” he says.

As for the network’s softness in primetime, he says, “They’re not going to find someone who’s like a Sean Hannity or like Rachel Maddow because that doesn’t fit in their image. They have to live with the fact that in primetime those people are getting higher ratings. But they’ve got other strengths that aren’t that.”

White House counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, the only member of the Trump administration who appears semi-regularly on CNN, doesn’t share Tyndall’s assessment of the network’s ideology. “While it is clear that CNN has decided it is better for ratings and revenue to be reflexively anti-Trump, it appears those ratings have plateaued,” she tells THR. “They should either own or rethink the business model of 24/7, non-reflective invective.” (Her boss, President Trump, says on Twitter they “should clean up and strengthen CNN and get back to honest reporting.”)

As the network blares coverage of the Trump administration and Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in he election, some CNN journalists have found it difficult to get stories on the air that touch on other topics. “I think we are at a point where we’re just exhausted,” says the longtime senior producer at the network. “On-air reporters who aren’t based in Washington, D.C., are running up against the wall of Trump news that they just can’t get over, or under, or through. … We know that the Trump story and his actions are very important. At the same time, it’s like we can’t get away from it.”

A former TV journalist thinks the network creates a “numbing” effect by inflating the significance of Trump-related news stories. “The relentlessness and the tone of high drama at all times is a programming choice to get eyeballs and not necessarily in the best interest of viewers or the reporters doing the work,” this person says. “There are so many stories to be told that aren’t being told because it’s yet another panel of pundits.”

CNN brass, most notably Zucker, is quick to point out that the network’s platforms don’t start and end with linear television, and encompass a wide variety of digital outlets. To this, former CNN anchor and White House correspondent Frank Sesno says: “People convene around the cable channel, they don’t convene around their smartphones.”

While all television networks are consumed by ratings, making hay of year-over-year increases and decreases in audience, Zucker is particularly focused on his network’s performance, according to people in and around the company.

“Obviously Jeff is super competitive, and would he like to beat MSNBC in primetime? Of course,” Heyward says. “He’d like to beat them at everything. He’d love to beat Fox. He’d love to have more people watching Anderson Cooper than the CBS Evening News.” (The veteran television executive puts it more bluntly: “Jeff is obsessed with ratings, he’s obsessed with winning, and he’s not winning.”)

Internally, a former CNN employee says the focus is not on “ratings,” but “profit.” “Every year, we have to make a bigger profit,” this person says. “And this is something that is openly discussed with the journalists.”

Indeed, Zucker’s fate at the network may be dictated by the profits he’s able to achieve for Time Warner, which faces an uncertain future as a judge hears arguments in a lawsuit filed by the U.S. government to stop AT&T’s proposed $85.4 billion acquisition of the company. Were the merger to go through, Zucker could be a casualty of the new management, even though CNN says it has enjoyed record profits under his leadership and the senior producer says he’s largely supported by CNN employees.

By positioning CNN as a bulwark against a White House and president intent on casting doubt on the network’s journalism, the former TV journalist says that Zucker may have insulated himself from being booted by the next owner of Time Warner. This person notes, “In a weird way, the controversy has helped him, because if they were to let him go now, it would be caving to Trump.”

A version of this story first appeared in the April 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.