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A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The moment I knew my time was up at CNN came in February, when I opened my show with 20 minutes of “BREAKING NEWS” about a snowstorm in Atlanta.
Now, I’ve got nothing against snow — or Atlanta. But I didn’t go to the world’s No. 1 news network to be a weather reporter, unless it’s biblical weather like Superstorm Sandy. I wanted to do an interview show; CNN president Jeff Zucker wanted more news. Soon afterward, he and I shared an enjoyable lunch in New York and agreed that my nightly show had run its course after four years.
I covered some of the biggest news stories for decades, including the Arab Spring uprisings, bin Laden’s death and Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. I ticked off most of my interview bucket list — Clinton, Streisand, Ahmadinejad, Oprah, Clooney, the Dalai Lama. I also presided over some calamitous errors, including the cringeworthy night I paid tribute live on air to a comedian who’d just died called Patrice O’Neal and got his gender wrong. (“He’s a man!” screamed my horrified producer Jonathan Wald in my ear, as I waxed lyrical about this “funny lady.”)
Perhaps most notably, I waged a prolonged, visceral on-air battle with the NRA following the gun massacres at Aurora and Sandy Hook. It brought me death threats, and 150,000 people signed a White House petition to have me deported. I don’t regret it, though toward the end of my run, I was in danger of becoming a barroom bore on the issue of guns — shouting at the same people about the same thing with diminishing effectiveness. Jeff once said to me: “You shouldn’t call these pro-gun guys ‘idiots’ on air. Better to say, ‘I think your argument is idiotic.’ “
“But they are idiots,” I replied.
It remains incomprehensible to me that a great nation like America can experience 20 first-graders being shot dead in their classrooms and do absolutely nothing to try and stop it happening again. In Britain, after the similar Dunblane massacre in 1996, I led a successful campaign at the Daily Mirror newspaper to have all guns banned in Britain. We haven’t had a school shooting since. America’s had over 70 since Newtown alone.
The cable news business, I discovered, is fast, furious, fun and occasionally frightening (my studio at Time Warner Center was actually rocking during Sandy’s rampage through Manhattan). It is also, more often, rather dull.
CNN is a great company, rich in journalistic quality and resources. On a big story, no network can match it for the speed, breadth and accuracy of its newsgathering and analysis. But its problem — if it has one — is that its brand name is so indelibly associated with breaking news that when there isn’t any, not many people tune in to CNN. Contrary to popular myth, my show did OK in the ratings. I kept them pretty much where Larry King left them, and Piers Morgan Live was always in the top two or three highest-rated CNN shows. But like every anchor at CNN, my perceived success was highly vulnerable to the news cycle.
For example, my ratings in February were the second-worst of my tenure because nothing happened and the Winter Olympics pulled away viewers. My ratings in March, my last month on air, were the second-highest of my tenure because a plane — Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — went missing. From a ratings perspective, I went from halfwit to genius in those eight weeks. But from a reality perspective, I wasn’t doing anything different. It’s very frustrating being adversely judged on ratings that are usually completely out of your control.
MSNBC has the same problem in reverse. Rachel Maddow does brilliantly when there’s no news but tanks when there is. She’s a terrific talent, and it has nothing to do with her and everything to do with MSNBC’s brand: hot on politics, cold on news.
I once joked with Rachel at President Obama‘s Christmas party: “Bad news, I’ve seen the weather report for 2013 and it’s nonstop hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes and tsunamis.” She laughed, ruefully.
So what should CNN do?
Well, Jeff is trying to redefine the primetime slate with taped series like Anthony Bourdain‘s superb Parts Unknown, hoping it will provide a more commercially successful alternative to the dreary, repetitive no-news news days. Some programs will work, some won’t — and some will get bounced off the airwaves by breaking news. I understand why Jeff’s doing it, but many CNN staffers are genuinely worried that, as Roger Ailes says, CNN is now “out of the news business.”
Personally, I’m not convinced that chasing ratings is necessary anyway. CNN is not just a U.S. network. It’s a global brand that airs in 200 countries and territories and relies on being an accurate purveyor of news — and it makes a ton of money providing that service. Very little of its revenue — which comes largely from subscriptions now — depends on domestic primetime ratings.
The pressure comes entirely from media critics snarking at low ratings when the news drops off. Of course, when Jeff orders saturation coverage of stories like MH370, the same critics hammer him for trying to milk news ratings as long as possible.
There, they have a point. I tuned in to CNN four weeks after I went off the air to find my old 9 p.m. hour devoted to the exact same debate on the missing plane I had on my final show, even down to the same guests and questions! It was Groundhog Day for cable news, and no anchor I spoke to was comfortable doing it.
My own answer to CNN’s perennial ratings “issue” would be to completely ignore it. Ted Turner, when I interviewed him, said his vision for CNN when he created it was for it to be The New York Times of the airwaves. “Even if the ratings weren’t the greatest,” he said, “if you had the most prestige and you were the network everyone turned to in times of a crisis, that was the most important position in the news business to hold.”
Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes gave me similar advice: “Don’t do shows just to chase ratings, focus on producing good shows.”
They are both right. But I would add to this the need for anchors who can tell a story, do a lively interview and have opinions. There’s a reason the hottest cable stars in America include the likes of Jon Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, John Oliver and Maddow: They speak their minds in an entertaining way.
I suggested to Jeff that Megyn Kelly would be a perfect primetime star for CNN — young, beautiful, slick, razor smart, bursting with opinions, humor and authority. I was convinced she’d give me a much better lead-in than Anderson Cooper, who for all his qualities as a reporter is stiff in a studio and gets annihilated in the ratings every night by O’Reilly. Jeff nodded and replied, “I tried to get her.” Days later, it was announced Megyn was moving to Fox News primetime, where she’s been a huge hit. CNN has many good anchors, but it needs to find more of its own Megyn Kellys.
I wish Jeff and CNN every success. I enjoyed almost all my time there. Now I’ve embarked on an exciting new venture, joining MailOnline as its editor-at-large (U.S.), with carte blanche to comment and provoke debate about hot-button American issues.
As for my future career in television, I’m now available. See you at The Grill!
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