CNN might languish in third place most of the time in the prime-time cable news ratings (and in other parts of the day too), but when it comes to periods of real news – such as the recent stories from Japan and Libya – CNN’s fortunes always rise.
That’s exactly what’s happened in the last two weeks as the globe’s two biggest stories have unfolded concurrently – the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor disaster in Japan, and then the rebellion in Libya.
A New York Times analysis of the news channel ratings during this period of intense, riveting news from overseas concluded that the primary victim of CNN’s ascent is MSNBC, particularly on weekends.
As long-time viewers of MSNBC know well, the news channel abandons news coverage at around midday (and sometimes later) on weekends, reverting to repeats of its various documentary series such as the ongoing prison show “Lockup.” And it’s at these times that CNN is seeing its ratings rise.
The Times story cites the viewership figures for the 25-54 age group, presumably because that demo is the core audience for cable news. On Saturday nights, CNN has been beating both MSNBC and Fox News Channel since these stories broke, the story says. In addition, CNN is beginning to encroach on MSNBC’s prime-time audience on weeknights too.
The story underscores the continuing challenge for CNN – namely, how to translate its reputation for reliable hard news into profits. Here’s the scenario that we see time and time again: In times of just “ordinary” news, FNC is top-rated by virtue of its right-leaning prime-time talk shows, and MSNBC – while trailing FNC by a large margin – usually lands in second place due to the loyalty of its audience to its left-leaning talk shows. In this noisy, partisan talk arena, CNN lays claim to neither camp. In this way, CNN is like the Switzerland of cable news, maintaining a neutrality that comes across as bland (despite its efforts to make noise with new personalities such as Eliot Spitzer and Piers Morgan).
But then, when news breaks, CNN applies its formidable resources around the world (and its No. 1 U.S. resource – TV’s most tireless frequent flier, Anderson Cooper) to coverage that strikes a chord with viewers, probably for the simple reason that, generally speaking, it comes across as untinged by the partisanship viewers associate instantly with FNC and MSNBC. (On the other hand, while CNN might be growing in one demo in a couple of weekend time periods, FNC still dominates overall, at all times, with its news shows and talk shows.)
The problem is: Covering strife around the world is a very expensive business, one that’s extremely difficult to profit from.
In a nutshell, that’s been CNN’s challenge for years now, and it persists to this day. The channel has this great reputation, but the question remains: How can they make money from it?