How to fix CNNWith Campbell Brown’s announcement that she will leave the network as soon as a replacement is found, CNN continues to flounder. Like the neighbor’s unfortunately—if appropriately—named pet bunny, Tick-Tock, who was woefully unprepared for the savagery of the family dog, CNN is overwhelmed, and time is running out for the first cable news channel.

It was good to hear CNN Chairman Jim Walton talk about commitment to news in the up-front ad sales meetings in New York a couple weeks ago. CNN USA President Jonathan Klein says he is also committed to a down-the-middle, real news organization. It’s precisely what CNN should be, but they lack the tools to succeed.

CNN’s informal daytime tone feels like local news. The anchors are too casual, and frankly, they don’t seem that well informed. News should drive daytime. Authority is the first casualty of informality, yet authority is the best card CNN has to play.

  • An example contrasts a recent morning’s Senate Finance Committee hearings coverage. Kyra Phillips had a very light discussion with Ali Velshi who was in the hearing room before the session began. It was jocular and singularly uninformative. He made sport of the marquee witness, Fabrice Tourre, the Goldman trader, who gave himself the nickname, “Fabulous Fab,” and when she closed, Ms. Phillips took a similar tack, saying that Ali was the most fabulous guy in the room at the moment. It was too cute by half. Contrast that with Marketplace Morning (a Public Radio International show that some NPR affiliates run) which managed to work the guy’s nickname in as well, but they did so in the context of his early timing in deciphering the housing bubble, and how his relative youth and inexperience may have made him too brash for his own good. All told, Marketplace provided a landscape and CNN a vaudeville stage.
  • One more: Renee Montagne interviewed an American general in Afghanistan on NPR’s Morning Edition recently. They were talking about Marja offensive, comparing it to the Sunni Awakening in Iraq. What Ms. Montagne gave her audience was context, the great unifier that is missing in our media-fragmented society. It was a balanced conversation that imparted the gravity of the situation without the melodrama I often feel from CNN’s war coverage.

There is no full-time television equivalent of NPR’s news effort. The three broadcast networks have their half hour evening newscasts and a few magazine shows. PBS has its NewsHour, Frontline and the new magazine show, “Need to Know,”  but it does not do news in long-form. Fox News Channel and MSNBC are less about light than heat.

The conventional wisdom is that the evening audience only wants heat, and that CNN’s news approach is no match for the opinion-driven hosts whose outsized personalities mean ratings success for the competitors. There is reason to believe, however, that stories that don’t begin life as an ideological statement are good programming.

The competitive answer for CNN lies in better product and personalities with a concerted and consistent marketing message that hammers home tone and authority. NPR’s 27 million combined drive-time weekly cumulative audience* (the biggest on radio) says the news consumer is hungry for deep, thoughtful reporting, not opinion masquerading as news or happy talk. And, by freeing itself from the single-minded political coverage of the others, CNN could shine with a breadth of stories that capture the imagination as they inform. An authentic story told in a way that leaves us breathless is absolutely in television’s sweet spot.

The primetime question for CNN is does the audience demand the MSNBC/Fox polemics, or will it watch informative, entertaining and compelling investigations, reporting and commentary? The answer may hasten the oft-rumored marriage of CBS and CNN. While it is not what it used to be, CBS still has a better bench than CNN, and CNN has a bigger, better global newsgathering organization. A global net spread wide enough to catch great stories told by really talented correspondents could create a magazine-driven primetime alternative to the political donnybrook that occupies the other channels.

There is an argument to be made for the cult of personality in TV news and opinion. Viewers clearly love FNC’s  Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, as well as MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, Rachel Maddow, and Keith Olberman more than they love CNN’s Larry King or Anderson Cooper. Maybe it’s as simple as CNN finding hosts whose appeal equals their competitors’, but I think it’s going to take a combination of appealing hosts, authoritative, authentic story telling, and wide array of subject matter to make the audience notice and care.

CNN has an opportunity to fulfill its promise, but time is running out. Tick-Tock.

*Source: ACT 1 based on Arbitron Nationwide, Fall 2008, Total US, Persons 12+, Monday-Sunday 6am- 12midnight.

© 2010 by Jon Sinton for Progressive Agenda, LLC

Jon Sinton

Jon Sinton

Jon Sinton is an Atlanta-based serial media entrepreneur and writer. He was the founding president of Air America Radio, is a radio syndicator, and co-founder of the nonprofit Progressive Voices Institute Inc, whose smartphone app, Progressive Voices, aggregates everything watched, read and heard in the progressive world, and puts it in all one place on the Mobile Internet. @jonsinton @progvoices