How CNN Will Save Itself

2012-28 BIZ CNN Illustration P IPAD
Illustration: John Ueland

Bland is a plus as the ailing news channel's fortunes lie in online expansion, not a Fox News face-off.

Bland is a plus as the ailing news channel's fortunes lie in online expansion, not a Fox News face-off.

When it was invented about 30 years ago, CNN solved one of the major shortcomings of television news in the broadcast era: It was on all the time. Instead of waiting for the periodic morning and nightly slots that were assigned to news by broadcasters, the viewer was liberated to tune in to a dedicated news channel at any time of the day or night.

Yet it only solved one shortcoming. CNN seemed to offer TV news on-demand, whereas in fact it merely offered TV news programming on-demand. We could watch TV news whenever we wanted, but we could not watch whatever TV news content we wanted. That was still as constrained as broadcast news had been: bound by the editorial decisions of the channel's producers.

Hence, CNN, as a 24-hour cable news channel, is a transitional medium en route to solving that second shortcoming: delivering whatever news content you might want. That medium is called -- and it is proving to be cutting-edge, remaking video news online as thoroughly as it remade broadcast TV news into 24-hour cable three decades ago.

CNN's current problem derives from unfortunate timing: It has lost the knack for attracting viewers to its legacy medium before that transition has been completed. The process of unbundling cable channels to offer a la carte subscriptions -- which inevitably will destroy the current cable channel business plan -- has yet to take hold. And in the meantime, CNN's audience, revenue and reputation are still stuck in the world of cable.

So despite the recent drumbeat of bad news -- a 20-year ratings low in May; CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton's July 27 announcement that he will step down at year's end -- there is a certain logic to the idea of CNN producing primetime programming on its domestic channel that audiences want to watch in increasingly diminishing numbers. Nothing should undercut the long-term goal of leveraging its existing global reputation for video newsgathering into a leadership position as the source of video-streamed news online.

In that context, global ubiquity is a greater asset than domestic popularity. Unlike Fox News or MSNBC, CNN cannot afford to be perceived as too American, too opinionated, too partisan, too idiosyncratic. Its ambition is to be the background channel that is always on everywhere around the world: in airport terminals, in business hotels, in barrooms and boardrooms. Bland is not a bug; it's an advantage. CNN's target audience is not individual viewers but operators and managers who are alienated by anything that is not wallpaper. They are looking for McDonald's and are fearful of Chick-fil-A.

CNN's lack of ideological turf has harmed it in the ratings war as a cable news channel but helps it online, where video content, not an anchor's politics or tone of voice, is key. CNN's future rival is YouTube, not Fox News.

In the short term, a primetime schedule that few Americans want to watch is a small price to pay -- literally. Advertising revenue derived from the size of domestic primetime audiences accounts for only a tenth of worldwide business for CNN, which will generate nearly $600 million in operating profit this year, a new high. In the medium term, though, such a drastic erosion of audiences will harm a larger portion of CNN's revenue, the per-subscriber fee it can levy from cable operators. But in the long term, that issue will be moot because unbundling will destroy the per-subscriber model and the transition from CNN to will be complete.

CNN's insistence that it follow a different path from Fox News and MSNBC is justified. Whereas CNN has set its sights on the future, when the Internet will have made cable channels redundant, its two main domestic rivals have looked to the past. With their political focus and partisan tone, they are more like talk radio with pictures than news on television. CNN needs to be a news channel, not a politics channel, in order to offer a clearly different worldview.

CNN's error has been that it only followed the logic of differentiating itself halfway: It avoids the partisanship but still embraces the politics. Its programming is wrongly focused, using an anchor-centric format when CNN viewers crave the absence of opinion. The net result is pomposity (Wolf Blitzer), vacuity (Erin Burnett) or triviality (Piers Morgan). Furthermore, emphasizing politics rather than other news beats is the worst decision if the goal is to be noncontroversial. Probably CNN's best anchor for tone of voice is Fareed Zakaria, whose beat is outside domestic politics. Anderson Cooper, too, can be said to have a humanitarian beat, not a political one.

CNN should let the future be its guide. Traditional primetime programs are hourlong blocks structured around the branded personality of an anchor. Online, attention spans are shorter and information flows are interactive. CNN needs to go to to find out how video news succeeds online then reverse-engineer that content for cable television. That way, once again true to its founding, it will be in the vanguard of the new way of bringing news to the world, not what its primetime looks like now: a legacy institution, frightened of rocking the boat, milking the last dollars from a moribund medium.

Andrew Tyndall publishes Tyndall Report, which monitors television news.