Sunday, May 6, 2012

Anchors away.

This week, the New York Times reported that CNN US is a brand in trouble. All but one of its news shows, “Anderson Cooper 360” are experiencing double-digit ratings losses.  Cooper’s losses are single digit. Although, worldwide, CNN will generate a record $600 million in operating profits this year, for it’s parent Time Warner.

But declining audiences directly impact future earnings. So, why is CNN in decline? FOX News and MSNBC audiences have also dropped, during the current lull in the presidential campaign, as candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich bowed out. But those networks should recover as the political machine gains steam during convention season.

On the other hand, CNN viewers tune in for breaking news. That’s the backbone and lifeblood of the news brand that captures 57 cents per cable viewer. When there are oil gushers in the Gulf of Mexico, war stories, twisters in tornado alley or plane crashes and railroad disasters, people instinctively tune in to CNN. Once a crisis or big story dies down, they’re free to channel surf, and that leaves CNN struggling to recoup ratings.

FOX and MSNBC offer political red meat for conservatives and liberals, respectively. Since, CNN is somewhere between those two on the political spectrum, they’re viewers are neither as passionate nor as loyal. That’s why interviewers like Larry King were anchors of the network. King was key to filling the gaps between news spikes. Once he retired, CNN went adrift.

Anderson Cooper is an intriguing fellow. A little like a hairless cat, he’s worth a look or two, but has no real gravitas based on essential experience toiling in the field. That’s not due to a lack of travel. I’d love to have his frequent flyer miles he’s piled up, jetting from story to story. But being somewhere to witness a happening, doesn’t mean you’re in the trenches, day in and day out. The late Peter Jennings lived in Beirut and London for years earning his stripes by really covering watershed events like the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes. Cooper leapfrogged to the anchor desk on his mother’s family name. That’s fashion icon Gloria Vanderbilt, as in the Vanderbilts. It’s not uncommon to see Cooper reporting on silly topics looking for laughs at the end of his broadcasts.

Soledad O’Brien, Erin Burnett and Piers Morgan are CNN’s latest efforts to boost their prime time viewership when there’s no news to break. As for O’Brien and Burnett, they’re competent, but too young and inexperienced to command authority. Morgan was a judge on “Britain’s Got Talent”, the UK version of “American Idol”. He also had a career with Rupert Murdoch’s British media machine. Not exactly a Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley.

CNN is continuing to grow its network of international bureaus, which builds on their core newsgathering strength, and should make them even tougher to beat to breaking news.

These days, there are few real network news anchors who can draw an audience on their own merit. Maybe Brian Williams at NBC. Maybe.

CBS tried to make Katie Couric a newswoman. She sank like an anchor, but the similarity ended there. An anchorwoman or anchorman’s credibility doesn’t come from a furrowed brow or even grey hair. A 35-year-old can be a legitimate news source if he or she works hard enough while climbing the ladder.

My advice to CNN is to mine their team of correspondents and develop primetime programming around them. Give Piers Morgan an extended vacation and try some real news people in the anchor chair. Rotate reporters in and out according to the topic or the specialty. Middle East reporters interviewing terrorism experts. Financial gurus covering economic analysts. And Anderson Cooper probing fashion, Hollywood and high society. He’s comfortable in that arena and could probably break an actual story or two.

Anchors aren’t made; they’re tempered by the heat of life in the trenches. And they’re only as heavy as the news they cover, day after day after day.

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