NEW YORK – CNN's leadership is preaching patience even though thousands of viewers are abandoning the network during its attempted turnaround, with no indication yet whether it will be rewarded.
Cable news ratings are down across the board compared to 2022, when Russia's invasion of Ukraine was fresh in the news. CNN's dip is most dramatic — 61% in prime time in March, with Fox News Channel down 27% and MSNBC off by 12%, according to the Nielsen company.
Fox averaged 2.09 million viewers in prime time in March, with MSNBC at 1.14 million and CNN at 473,000, Nielsen said. In the key 25-54 age demographic for advertisers, CNN is seeing some of its lowest numbers in decades.
CNN is a year into new corporate management with Warner Bros. Discovery, which hired ex-CBS producer Chris Licht to run the network. The chief goal has been to rebuild trust as a non-partisan news brand after years of criticism by former President Donald Trump and his followers, at a time Fox and MSNBC have profited handsomely by appealing to specific points of view.
Licht's biggest programming move to date, a revamp of “CNN This Morning,” hasn't borne fruit in the ratings and has been beset by bad publicity, including co-host Don Lemon's ham-fisted reference to a woman's prime years.
Changes to CNN's daytime look are imminent. Licht's vision for prime time is months away, though, and only beginning to take shape.
His plans are to couple news coverage with hosts from different worlds, including entertainment, who can talk about the news without a specific partisan take. Licht is exploring several possibilities, and CNN is reportedly close to deals with CBS' Gayle King and former NBA star turned sportscaster Charles Barkley for shows that will air once a week, although the network wouldn't confirm that.
If Licht's bet pays off, CNN will strengthen its reputation as a news brand while also attracting viewers who are now watching Netflix or HGTV — not just competing news networks.
As those plans develop, CNN's prime-time lineup has largely been in flux after Anderson Cooper's hour at 8 p.m. Eastern. The network has experimented with some interviews, events and subject-focused hours at 9 p.m. Eastern. They include talks with first lady Jill Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and town halls with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and one focused on the Ohio train derailment.
The news hours that follow, at least for now, are led by Alisyn Camerota and Laura Coates.
“Viewers are a bit confused with all of the changes, particularly in the prime-time lineup,” said Jennifer Thomas, a former CNN producer who now teaches journalism at Howard University. She said CNN needs more news that impacts viewers and less analysis.
CNN expresses pride in some of the efforts, while admitting some are duds. Last Friday, for example, only 295,000 people watched Jake Tapper's interview with “Ted Lasso” star Jason Sudeikis. It was less than a quarter of the people who saw Alex Wagner's MSNBC show at the same 9 p.m. Eastern time slot, Nielsen said.
David Zaslav, president and CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, delivered a pep talk to hundreds of CNN managers earlier this month to reinforce the message that he wanted to see a network focused on the news that didn't lean any way politically.
CNN saw strong ratings under the leadership of Licht's predecessor, Jeff Zucker, and Zaslav said he recognized that a more partisan approach could bring more viewers and money, but that “it's not what I came here to do,” according to a transcript of Zaslav's speech.
He said he hoped the network would be able to figure out what is working and what isn't. He urged the managers to not worry about outside noise.
“Ratings be damned,” he said. “Let's focus on who we are. This is our mission. This is our legacy. And this is our journey together.”
The question for Licht and his team, as it is often in similar situations, is “how much time do they really have?” said Mark Whitaker, a former executive at CNN and NBC News.
Strong ratings mean more revenue, and more money to spend on programming, Whitaker said.
Cable news viewership is often very habit-driven, with viewers drawn to personalities they know and trust, he said. For the first three days this week, CNN's 9 p.m. Eastern hour had three different hosts — Erin Burnett, Pamela Brown and Kaitlan Collins.
CNN must wonder whether viewers will lose the habit of tuning in while waiting for the network's true personality to emerge under Licht. A new prime-time schedule is not likely until the fall.
It doesn't help that many CNN viewers have long considered the network a utility to be used primarily when there are big stories, and it's a relatively quiet period now. An important test will be how many viewers will reflexively turn to CNN during big news events, where it has often dominated the ratings.
MSNBC, in touting its biggest audience advantage over CNN in nearly four years, said that its viewers watched the network an average of 381 minutes per week during the first three months of 2023, compared to 183 minutes for CNN.
“They're fighting against the toughest foe they can fight,” said Rick Kaplan, a former CNN president. “They're fighting against short attention spans. They're fighting against the fact that we're such a divided people, so angry at each other, that if you don't reflect that anger, the people don't have time for you.”
Continued poor ratings “eats away at the fabric of the network, if you're doing great shows and nobody is watching,” he said.
Kaplan said he believes CNN has the right executive in Licht, who has a strong track record as a successful programmer.
“If there's a right way, he'll find it,” he said.