How CNN Can Beat Back Fox and MSNBC

Crossfire-type debate showsminus the vitriolcould make the network a destination when there's no disaster

TO: CNN ManagementFROM: Loudmouth Media ConsultancyRE: Pugilism

Bravo for '08, eh? The U.S. elections brought a rare twofer. Intense viewer interest in news--better ratings, which translate into more ad dollars--and increased ad demand, thanks to well-heeled campaigns buying every second of airtime they could grab. Now, almost halfway into '09, the election's as gone as last night's thunderstorm. Well, that's not quite right. There's no half-life to a weather story. There is a half-life to an election, especially one in which power is handed to a new President intent on using it in manifold new ways.

But CNN's evening Nielsen ratings among a key audience--adults aged 25 to 54--have fallen from their pre-election peaks. Yes, the same fate has befallen your competition, Fox News Channel (NWS) and MSNBC. But if MSNBC's ratings between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. now best yours--they did, among those adults in February and March--then your falloff is worse. Your executives make the point that CNN's overall all-day audience is growing. But that does you little good if the other guys outdo you in the most precious part of the day. (And it looks dreadful if flagship CNN ever trails CNN Headline News among adults 25 to 54 in prime time. It has in some recent months.)

In prime time it's not enough to lean on CNN's advantages: your bigger reporting staff and middle-course sensibilities. Those help when viewers hunger for continuous coverage of big breaking events or for ongoing stories like last year's election. They don't help much right now. Changing realities require changing tactics. Your opponents have staked their evening programs--successfully--on pugilism, not punctiliousness.

It's time to embrace a new prime-time ethos for CNN, which encompasses the bona fides of the brand CNN and the fact that, like it or not, on-screen combat is good TV. No, CNN should not suddenly solely air food fights, though a little food fight never hurt anyone. No, CNN should not dive madly toward some new and overt point of view. No, don't bring back Crossfire. (Pace blogger Mickey Kaus, who has suggested that.) Rather: Remake Crossfire. Make prime-time CNN the place for vigorous debate. (You can add the word "respectful" to the description if you feel the need.) The venue for intellectual combat. Two, or more, viewpoints enter an arena; one comes out the victor.

I know: CNN was healthy enough last year to throw off around $500 million in profit, and you guys take pride in being the financially strongest news joint around. I know much institutional ego is wrapped up in CNN laying claim to a sober take on the news. (Here's where I mention Lou Dobbs' loud opinions; here's where CNN execs shift uncomfortably.) The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times show that capital-J journalistic outlets can sling some serious smack-talk--on their op-ed pages, at least.

The election may have come and gone, but the issues haven't. One new-style debate show--or more--can capitalize on the national conversation regarding the government's new roles in the economy and business. You can do this and subtly elevate your brand above all else: CNN is the place for debate, not the place for argument. (You can claim in on-air promos, if you feel you need to drape gravitas around this new idea, that CNN is honoring a robust American tradition going back to Lincoln-Douglas. Or something like that.) And a healthy on-air argument spawns online clips, which, while not especially monetizable yet, bolster a brand and show it off to those who don't tune in.

This will require a remake of the political shoutfest, which has been pretty much the same for decades. A new talent stable may be required to ensure that, as CNN President Jon Klein puts it, these shows' participants don't fall into "Punch-and-Judy roles, and spit out talking points." Great. So CNN can reinvent this form and make it its own. If it doesn't, maybe the 2010 election cycle will be a barn-burner, or perhaps a bunch of really bad rainstorms this summer will rescue the ratings. Would you rather depend on your programming skills or the weather?

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