Can reality programming win over viewers and media buyers who don't remember when CNN was a power?
CNN said Monday that it is exploring "nonfiction original series" for the weekend, where it has already committed to a travel show hosted by Anthony Bourdain, responding to a New York Post article reporting that the network is seeking out reality show ideas and on-air personalities outside traditional TV News. The article also said CNN has begun working on a late-night talk show akin to "The View."
"We routinely pursue new talent and programming concepts within the news category and often shoot pilots for any number of our networks," CNN spokeswoman Barbara Levin said via email.
The network appeared to be distinguishing between series such as Mr. Bourdain's and lighter reality shows centered around celebrities or competitions, which presumably still lie outside its purview. But personalities and editorial missions from outside traditional TV news could still help the network refresh its image among young media buyers who weren't around when the cable news network was at the top of its game.
"Most young buyers don't remember when CNN was the force, so it needs to start impressing," said one senior media buyer.
Another senior buyer, who manages a team of 20- and 30-something-year-old buyers, said an informal poll found most of them don't know much about the network, its programming or its on-air personalities outside of Anderson Cooper.
It's been nearly a decade since CNN has stood as the dominant cable news network. It is now stuck in third place in prime time behind rivals Fox News and MSNBC. CNN saw its lowest ratings since 1991 in the second quarter, when it averaged 446,000 total viewers in prime time, a 35% plunge from the year prior. In the coveted 25-54 demographic, viewership declined 41% from the same period in 2011.
CNN President Jim Walton last month announced that he is leaving at the end of the year, saying the network needs new leadership to revive sagging ratings .
Greg D'Alba, head of ad sales at CNN, said recently that the network had a strong upfront consistent with recent years past. The network has also been touting its digital and social-media strategies to attract viewers and tell stories, calling social media an integral part of the future of news. But buyers are starting to voice some concerns.
"CNN is the only cable news network that 's given us a hard time on pricing, and as a result they are getting left off some buys," said one buyer. "If they are not willing to reduce pricing as Fox News and MSNBC have when there's been ratings softness, it will hurt them."
CNN isn't alone in exploring new types of programming to attract younger audiences. Business network CNBC is developing several reality pilots centering around cash-strapped startups, a high-end international concierge service, budding entrepreneurs and car flippers.
It remains to be seen how viewers will respond to such programming on networks not generally associated with entertainment content. For CNN, which has prided itself on nonpartisan news coverage, reality programming could work if done correctly, observers said.
"The analog could be in MTV 's shift from airing nothing but music videos to developing its own programming, rather than be commoditized by the increasing availability of the underlying music content it previously relied on," said Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser.
Reality TV has buzz with viewers and costs less than other formats, said Sam Armando, director of strategic intelligence at SMGx. But cable news networks need to be careful because reality TV also has a negative connotation and could alienate current viewers, he said.
"What scares me is reality TV is the farthest thing from news on a trust factor scale," said branding strategist Peter Shankman. "There could be a serious risk to credibility."