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Can CNN's Prime-Time Shakeup Bring Back Lost Audience Share?

Pressure Is on for Network After Last Year's Evening Efforts Kept It Behind Competitors

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

With advertisers clamoring to get involved with its election coverage, CNN won't find a better opportunity to finally figure out how to make its prime-time offerings work than this fall.

Ken Jautz

The cable network could cajole more of its news-hungry clients to throw more money into post-newsroom programming if only it could come up with something that proved more attractive than a foam-mouthed Nancy Grace or the more popular Bill O' Reilly.

CNN executives often pooh-pooh prime time: CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton said the daypart represents less than 10% of the business unit's overall revenue. (Advertising is half of CNN Worldwide's revenue, and prime time 20% of that .) But just as NBC produces far less revenue than many other parts of NBC Universal yet still garners the lion's share of the attention paid to the company, CNN's prime-time lineup continues -- for good or ill -- to serve as a barometer of the network's health.

The pressure is on for not-so-new exec VP Ken Jautz, who arrived at CNN in the fall of 2010 after gaining attention for his efforts at refueling sister network HLN with Nancy Grace and even Glenn Beck. The schedule he inherited from axed former president Jon Klein included Piers Morgan, brought in to take over for the ossifying Larry King, and controversial former New York governor Eliot Spitzer at 8 p.m. Mr. Spitzer has left the network after his show never quite came together, while Mr. Morgan often ranks behind Fox News Channel and MSNBC, and recently even "Dr. Drew" on HLN during its Casey Anthony coverage.*

To try and reverse the trend, CNN will move "John King USA" up an hour to 6 p.m., add CNBC's Erin Burnett to 7 p.m. (starting late September), swap out the remnants of Mr. Spitzer's "In the Arena" for "Anderson Cooper 360" at 8 p.m., keep "Piers Morgan" at 9 and then -- in what might be considered a risky maneuver -- repeat "360" at 10 p.m.

"That's a lot of change to make in one fell swoop," said Jason Maltby, director-national broadcast TV at WPP's Mindshare. "But no one would argue change wasn't warranted. You'd rather see all live programming from 8 to 11 at least, but from a buyer's perspective you want whatever's going to deliver the most eyeballs."

During prime time, CNN has fewer of them to offer. CNN began losing audience share to MSNBC and longtime rival Fox News during the 2008 election cycle, and frequently ranks No. 3 in prime time and occasionally even No. 4 to sibling HLN. What's more, its historically high costs of reaching a thousand viewers, a measure commonly known as a CPM that is used by ad buyers to determine how efficiently their marketing dollars work, has been overtaken by competitors as Fox continues to gain share and pitch its own upscale -- if older and more politically conservative -- audience to media buyers.

"Prime-time is still very important to us," Mr. Walton said. "It's something advertisers cherish, something that 's talked about by those people who cover us on how we're performing in prime time, and we want to continue to be competitive."

CNN is betting on the next presidential cycle to keep CNN top-of -mind among some marketers. Greg D'Alba, CNN's chief operating officer of ad sales, said CNN was able to finish its upfront deals before the general market wrapped this year due to high demand for its election content over the next four quarters. Top categories include automotive, energy, insurance and technology marketers. Still, Mr. D'Alba recognizes the importance of prime time to the marketplace.

"Even though it's 10% [of our revenues], I want that number to be higher," he said.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly credited Ken Jautz, exec VP-CNN, with greenlighting Eliot Spitzer and Piers Morgan's shows. Jon Klein, former president of CNN/U.S., was the executive responsible. It also said Mr. Morgan's show often ranks behind "Dr. Drew" on HLN; that happened only recently, during HLN's Casey Anthony coverage.

YOUR BIGGEST CABLE-NEWS QUESTIONS ANSWERED

Advertising Age Media Reporter Andrew Hampp Takes the Pulse of the Industry

Casey Anthony on HLN

Has HLN monetized its coverage of the Casey Anthony trial?

Yes. HLN achieved its best ratings ever during the final week of the Casey Anthony trial, finishing No. 7 among all cable networks in total-day viewership among total viewers and adults 25 to 54. HLN was able to sell ads for the nine-week coverage in scatter, particularly among family-targeted advertisers in the retail, fashion, entertainment and fast-food sectors. The network is now pitching advertisers on its upcoming coverage of the Conrad Murray trial, prepping for 8 to 10 weeks of opportunities to follow the trial for Michael Jackson's former doctor.

How's Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" doing since it moved from MSNBC to Current?

Well, it's starting off a lower base since Current is only available in about 60 million homes, vs. the fully distributed MSNBC, which is in over 95 million. "Countdown" debuted to 179,000 viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic, enough to beat CNN in its timeslot. But those numbers were nearly halved in "Countdown's" second week, when the show averaged 93,000 viewers in the demo. But the show has since remained competitive with CNN and HLN, and delivered loads of incremental exposure to the previously tiny Current (the network averaged 30,000 viewers in prime time prior to Olbermann's premiere).

Keith Olbermann

Speaking of Olbermann, how's MSNBC doing without his show?

Overall ratings were up 12% during second quarter 2011, and 4% in prime time, but Lawrence O' Donnell's program, which took over "Countdown" at 8 p.m. hasn't been able to sustain ratings , a fact Olbermann couldn't help but note on Twitter: "Presented without comment. ... A certain cable-news operation down 12% at 8 p.m. from second quarter 2010," he tweeted.

Just how far ahead is Fox News in cable-news ratings ?

Significantly. The network finished No. 5 among all cable networks during second-quarter 2011, averaging 1.8 million total viewers compared to MSNBC (No. 28, 798,000 viewers), CNN (No. 29, 685,000 viewers) and HLN (No. 34, 549,000 viewers.)

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