CNN’s Prime-Time Experience gets off to a slow start

New CNN president Chris Licht launched a new experiment last month to boost his network’s prime-time ratings, betting viewers would tune in for a mix of exclusive interviews and shows dedicated to hot topics like fentanyl abuse and the war in Ukraine.

Viewers had other ideas.

Since Mr. Licht’s 9 p.m. experience, “CNN Primetime,” began airing several times a week on Feb. 22, viewership has fallen below what the network was attracting in the timeslot there. only a few months old.

At 9 p.m. on March 8, more Americans watched “Homicide Hunter: The Man With No Face” on the Investigation Discovery cable network than CNN’s exclusive interview with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Two days earlier, an afternoon show of “Ancient Aliens” on the History Channel drew larger audiences than a 9 p.m. interview with first lady Jill Biden.

Last week, when the network aired Biden and Zelensky’s interviews, as well as a town hall with Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, CNN delivered its fourth lowest weekly 9 p.m. ratings in 24 years.

CNN has had a rough ride since Mr. Licht, a former morning and late-night show producer, was named to the job about a year ago. The network has downsized, dropped a new streaming channel and faced an outcry over sexist remarks from anchor Don Lemon.

Mr. Licht retained the strong support of his boss, David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, which acquired CNN last year. During a visit to CNN’s Manhattan offices on Tuesday, Mr. Zaslav wholeheartedly endorsed Mr. Licht’s vision for the network, urging staff to try new ideas — “the ratings be damned.”

“We are trying to determine which is the best CNN,” Mr. Zaslav said, according to a transcript of his remarks obtained by The New York Times. “What are the stories we should tell? What is the right balance? »

“Let’s do a lot of damage next year,” he added.

A CNN spokesperson said Thursday, “We have openly experimented with various programming directions over the past few weeks. With no established format, cadence, or promotion for this hour, the network focused exclusively on producing intelligent and meaningful content, not ratings.

CNN did not put in a marketing effort to feature these 9 p.m. specials, and it’s possible the network could grow an audience in the timeslot as more viewers become aware of the new concept.

Yet news of CNN’s dwindling ratings traveled beyond cable executives poring over Nielsen’s data reports: At last weekend’s Gridiron Club white-tie dinner in Washington, D.C. , Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken singled out the network in his comedic speech.

“According to the guest list, there are 600 attendees here tonight,” Mr. Blinken told the crowd with a laugh. “CNN would kill for an audience like that.”

Cable news is a land of habit: unstable viewers, whose median age stretches into their 60s, expect to see the same anchor night after night. The concept of devoting 21 hours to a fluctuating mix of hosts and subjects — rather than a dedicated anchor with a big on-air personality — was always going to be a gamble.

Mr. Licht touted “CNN Primetime” as an opportunity to inject “new and unique perspectives into the news,” and his idea came when some prime-time news shows began to lag behind afternoon rates. He sought the services of hosts like former basketball star Charles Barkley and “CBS Mornings” anchor Gayle King.

But without a regular anchor in place, “CNN Primetime” specials are often announced days or even hours before they air. Recent installments have included a town hall with citizens of East Palestine, Ohio discussing the recent train disaster; an overview of the murder trial of Alex Murdaugh; and, on Wednesday, an examination of “the state of banking in America” ​​in light of the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank.

As of last week, Anderson Cooper’s long-running 8 p.m. show drew an average audience of 584,000 viewers. The 9 p.m. promotions averaged only 407,000, a difference of 30%. On several occasions, CNN’s narrow daytime shows, airing at off-peak times like noon and 1 p.m., have attracted larger audiences than newer nighttime offerings. The only “CNN Primetime” special that topped its 8 p.m. intro viewership was an interview with comedian Bill Maher.

Mr. Licht and Mr. Zaslav share a vision of CNN as an essential institution in American life that has somewhat lost its way under its last president, Jeff Zucker, who encouraged its anchors to adopt confrontational positions towards the Trump administration. As Mr. Licht set out to remake CNN, he championed the kind of direct reporting he says has been scaled back in favor of a more partisan pundit.

“We could have chosen as an organization to become an advocacy network,” Zaslav said in his remarks on Tuesday. “And we could probably make more money doing it. And, you know, there was a period where some of that strategy was deployed here.

Whether there is an audience for the new approach — at least, one big enough to generate the huge profits Mr. Zucker reaped during his tenure at the top of CNN — remains an open question in an era deeply polarized.

Mr. Zaslav says he has no qualms. “Chris and I have been spending an awful lot of time together, and I’m extremely encouraged by where we’re at,” he said.


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