While CNN lags rivals in ratings , it typically leads during
major news events, such as election night. In fact, CNN beats both
Fox News and MSNBC when it comes to cumulative audience -- the
total number of viewers who tune in to the channel during a month.
The problem is that CNN doesn't retain those viewers during slow
news cycles. And as ratings points dwindle, advertisers could start
taking their money elsewhere, according to media buyers.
In 2012, CNN will bring in about $600 million in operating
profit, and Time Warner said CNN has been one of the highest
earnings-growth networks in its portfolio. It received a boost from
the elections in November, with 1.1 million watching in prime time,
a 64% jump from November 2011. But the network still lagged behind
Fox News, which averaged 2.6 million viewers during prime time, a
47% jump from the previous year. MSNBC saw 1.6 million total
viewers tune in, a 76% increase from last year.
Other cable-news networks seem up for the renewed fight. "[Fox
News President Roger] Ailes on one side, Zucker on the other: Game
on," MSNBC chief Phil Griffin told The New York Times. But for Mr.
Zucker, the competition doesn't stop at traditional news
"If we only look at the competition set as Fox News and MSNBC,
we are making a mistake. Our competition is anyone who produces
nonfiction programming," Mr. Zucker said. And yes, he clarified,
that means CNN would even be going after networks such as Discovery
In revamping programming and execution, and broadening the
competition beyond its core competitive set, Mr. Zucker must be
careful not to alienate advertisers. "CNN needs to figure out how
to change the programming without destroying the ad-sales model,"
one news veteran said.
Here are a few keys to his strategy.
CNN prides itself on being nonpartisan, and Mr. Zucker made it
clear he has no intention of changing that .
"CNN's role in the world is more important than ever when
partisan politics have been so loud," he said during a conference
call after his hiring was announced. "We will remain true to the
journalistic values that have always been a hallmark of CNN."
But if CNN is going to go down that middle road, it will need to
make it as "exciting and sexy as the extremes," said marketing
expert Adam Hanft.
Defining News Beyond 'Politics and War'
"News is not just about politics and war," Mr. Zucker said.
The network has already committed to a food-and-travel program
starring celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, which will air on
weekends in 2013.
"What I like about [Anthony Bourdain's show] is it begins to
understand the definition of news is broader than what we
traditionally think about," Mr. Zucker said.