After a year in which ratings woes plagued many TV networks, the industry is redoubling its effort to figure out new ways to woo big audiences. But five cable networks in particular will find their journeys closely tracked in the coming year.
Jeff Zucker, the newly appointed chief of CNN, will be operating under a microscope as he attempts to revamp the struggling cable news network, which has lagged behind rivals Fox News and MSNBC.
Mr. Zucker succeeds Jim Walton, who stepped down after a decade at the helm because CNN needed "new thinking," as Mr. Walton put it to staff. Mr. Zucker's charge, according to his new boss and Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent: to make CNN "essential."
Many viewers already consider CNN essential during major news events, such as this year's election, and CNN actually beats both Fox News and MSNBC when it comes to cumulative audiences -- the total number of viewers who check in to the channel during a month. But viewers don't stick around CNN very long when there isn't big news underway. They will linger, in contrast, for the more opinionated prime-time programming at its rivals. The trick for CNN is to make its programming more "sticky" without abandoning its middle-of -the-road political position.
CNN already has some changes underway. It said earlier this month that Jake Tapper, senior White House correspondent for ABC News, will anchor new weekday news programming beginning early next year. The network, which said the hire had been in the works for a while but that Mr. Zucker was involved, didn't specify the time slot Mr. Tapper will take. "Parts Unkown," a weekend food and travel show hosted by Anthony Bourdain, also begins in the spring.
Mr. Zucker, who is credited with introducing outdoor concerts to NBC's "Today" when he was a young executive producer, may look to revitalize CNN's morning programming as well. Its morning shows, "Early Start" and Soledad O'Brien's "Starting Point," which replaced "American Morning" earlier this year, are delivering lackluster ratings . Mr. Zucker may move Erin Burnett from 7 p.m. to replace Ms. O'Brien with the help of a male co-host, the New York Post recently reported. Other reports suggest Mr. Zucker has his eye on former "Today" co-host Ann Curry for the 8 p.m. time slot currently occupied by Anderson Cooper.
Mr. Zucker may even develop a late-night comedy program akin to "The Daily Show," the Daily News has reported. "News is not just about politics and war," Mr. Zucker said following his appointment.
OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network
For Oprah Winfrey's cable network, 2012 was a year of dichotomy. It began with the network in shambles. In March, OWN doled out pink slips to about 20% of its workforce and cancelled Rosie O'Donnell's much-hyped talk show after just five months.
But after right-sizing the business and seeing the Queen of Talk herself take an increasingly hands-on role, the network has experienced a turnaround.
Ms. Winfrey's own show, "Oprah's Next Chapter," has been a highlight, bringing in 3.5 million viewers for interviews with Whitney Houston's family and 2.5 million viewers for singer Rihanna -- and generating considerable, much-needed buzz in the process. Non-Oprah programs like "Welcome to Sweetie Pie's" and Iyanla Vazant's "Fix My Life" have also gained momentum.
In the third quarter, OWN reported a 63% surge in prime-time viewership by women 25 to 54 years old and a 57% jump in total viewers. And in November, OWN posted its tenth consecutive month of year-over-year ratings gains.
The New Year will see OWN add scripted programming to the mix, including the first of its series from Tyler Perry under a new multi-year deal. Mr. Perry has previously created successful sitcoms such as "House of Payne" for TBS.
OWN, which is a joint venture between Discovery Communications and Harpo, is expected to become profitable in late 2013, according to Discovery CEO David Zaslav.
Now that "Jersey Shore" is over -- with a series finale that underperformed prior season finales -- 2013 will be an important year for MTV to figure out how to remain relevant post-fist pumping and GTL. Ratings at the Viacom network plunged about 30% during the third quarter.
MTV has been attempting to find its next hit with scripted series such as "Awkward" and "Teen Wolf," but none have captured the same attention as "Jersey Shore" did at its height. To that end, the network hired Susanne Daniels as its programming chief last month. Ms. Daniels, a veteran of Lifetime and The WB, has played a part in the success of hits such as "Gilmore Girls," "Dawson's Creek" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
It also hopes a new reality series called "Buckwild," about nine 20-somethings in West Virginia, will find critical mass when it begins Jan. 3. ABC News has called it "'Jersey Shore' meets 'Honey Boo Boo.'"
The bigger concern, however, is that MTV 's millennial audience is consuming content in different ways. MTV has been attempting to reach its viewers everywhere they are with its strategy of "storytelling without borders," promoting streaming video by hosting an eight-hour live stream event on Dec. 12 and pushing second-screen initiatives involving Facebook, Twitter and other social-media platforms to engage viewers.
The New Year will give a clearer picture of how successful MTV can be using these platforms to drive TV ratings . And if MTV can pull it off, maybe others in the TV business can do the same.
Nickelodeon occupied an unflattering spotlight for much of 2012 due to its beleaguered ratings . It finished the year still tops among its competitive set for total viewers, but the Disney Channel won among viewers 2 to 11 years old, breaking a 17-year streak for Nickelodeon.
Some industry observers and analysts have blamed Nickelodeon's ratings declines on the availability of Nick programming through streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu, but Philippe Dauman, CEO of network parent Viacom, has defended its digital distribution deals, saying they have minimal impact on ratings . Others have pointed out that Nickelodeon has been relying heavily on aging series such as "SpongeBob SquarePants." Two hit shows, "iCarly" and "Victorious," are ending.
To reverse its troubles, Nickelodeon has increased its investment in new programming, already finding success with the reboot of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," which premiered to nearly 4 million viewers and has averaged 3.4 million viewers per episode. That helped the network post a weekly ratings increase in November, the first time since September 2011 that the channel generated growth. The year-over-year ratings decline has narrowed substantially in the fourth quarter, and network executives are looking forward to new shows "Sam & Cat," a spinoff of both "iCarly" and "Victorious," and "Wendell & Vinnie" on Nick at Nite.
For Current TV, 2013 could become make or break.
The cable news network, co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore in 2005, has struggled since its debut. It said in October that it was considering buyout offers, with CEO Joel Hyatt confirming that the network had decided to "engage expertise to help us evaluate our strategic options." Current TV was not set on a sale, Mr. Hyatt said then. But pressure may be growing.
Reports suggested earlier in 2012 that Time Warner Cable was considering dropping Current TV. Those concerns have resurfaced now that Time Warner has said it will stop carrying the low-rated arts channel Ovation and generally plans to reevaluate under-performing networks. Current TV was named on Time Warner Cable's website as a channel whose contract expires soon.
Current has tested several formats and types of programming since its inception, starting with user-generated content and trying to remake itself as a liberal news channel with the hiring of Keith Olbermann in 2011. The network fired Mr. Olbermann in 2012 and replaced him with former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. Other hosts include Joy Behar, former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. It has been playing Michael Moore's 2002 documentary "Bowling for Columbine" in heavy rotation since the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
SocialGood.TV, a startup based in Austin, Texas, said earlier in November that it's raising money to make a bid on Current. "They chose to focus more on pushing legislation and spreading messages that are in line with far-left talking points than they are about promoting solutions that have the greatest impact, which can also find support from a broad range of people," SocialGood.TV founder Stephen Vogelpohl said on the company's website. "SocialGood.TV will change this by focusing the programming in a centrist line and promoting people, non-profits, NGO's like the U.N., and companies that are actively working to change things for the better across the globe. Our programming will include more documentaries, reality programming featuring people and groups changing the world, and entertaining educational programming."
A Current TV spokeswoman said this week that the notion that SocialGood.TV will buy the channel is "poppycock."
The network is currently distributed in about 60 million homes in the U.S., enough to make it a tempting target for anyone looking to start a new cable channel, but still well below MSNBC, for example, which is in 96 million homes.