After CNN drew its highest ratings in decades during its coverage of the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks, the network’s new president is saying a different approach to covering the news might bring in more viewers.
President Jeff Zucker cited CNN’s high ratings as evidence that viewers tune in when the network is covering important breaking news, according to a recent memo he sent to network executives and newsroom editors, which was leaked to the news media.
Zucker, 48, took over the network in January after a troublesome run with NBC Universal. He claimed he would focus on “redefining what the definition of news is” in order to boost CNN’s ratings, which have declined over the years.
“During our coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings we averaged about 2.9 million viewers, including many people in the under-age-30 crowd,” Zucker wrote in the memo. “It turns out that our viewers actually like it when we cover important, breaking news stories with reporters in the field asking questions and providing useful information.
“Although we earned widespread criticism because we ran a few erroneous reports, such as saying a suspect had been arrested or that President Obama had resigned, we still had the eyes and ears of many Americans who apparently wanted to know what was going on in Boston.
“Maybe if we continue to cover important news like this, CNN could soon average as many as 4 or 5 million viewers a day, far surpassing our competition at Fox News and MSNBC. We might even beat reruns of ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘The Office’ if we keep up the good work.”
Zucker, CNN executives and journalists declined to comment on the leaked memo. However, the memo indicates that Zucker may reevaluate his prior approach to introducing light-hearted soft news shows and imitating Fox News programs.
Whatever Zucker decides to do, media critics say changes are needed to bring in more viewers to CNN, which pioneered 24/7 cable news and once billed itself as “The Worldwide Leader in News.”
Since taking over, Zucker has brought in anchors like Jake Tapper and Chris Cuomo while getting rid of Soledad O’Brien; has introduced new shows hosted by Anthony Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock; and has proposed reviving “Crossfire,” a panel show in which conservatives and liberals yelled at each other.
He also brought in a prime time show, “(Get to) The Point,” in which five commentators discussed soft news and banal topics such as bacon and airplane toilet seats. The show had low ratings and was canceled after a week.
Zucker wrote that viewers have given him some indication on what they want to watch.
“We conducted surveys with viewers following our Boston Marathon coverage,” Zucker wrote in his memo, “and many said they appreciated being informed about the events from a source other than the BBC, NPR or PBS.
“We asked people if we could improve our coverage by bringing in more political pundits or through flashy graphics like the kind we use in the virtual room, and the answer was surprising. They said, ‘No, not really. Those graphics are really stupid and cheesy.’ Nobody has ever said that to us before.
"They also told us that they don't get their news from partisan bickering among Democrats and Republicans, which almost contradicts everything we've believed.
“Perhaps this means we should consider covering more important news. By comparison, our coverage of unimportant news like the Jodi Arias trial, the Florida sinkhole or (pop star) Beyonce’s news conferences didn’t bring in high ratings, surprisingly.”
Zucker’s memo could have wide-ranging implications for the future of the 24-hour cable news business, media analysts say.
“We have long assumed and believed that most Americans are only interested in soft news and banal chatter from partisan hacks,” says Kent Brockman, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon. “But it turns out that viewers occasionally tune in when important news is being covered.
“It will be interesting to see if CNN actually started doing what it used to do back in the 1980s when it had international bureaus and investigative reports on a regular basis,” Brockman says. “At least, they’d better do something big before Al-Jazeera comes in and steals their thunder.”