The cable news network is making big changes — Brian Stelter’s out, Chris Wallace is in — as it maneuvers toward middle ground (as if that still exists)
It was a simple and elegant metaphor that explained everything you need to understand about the horrors of cable TV broadcasting during Trump’s era.
Four years later, CNN is rearranging its apple cart by announcing a series of programming and editorial changes that are frankly a bit bananas. The network’s 2022 game plan? To attract new viewers to the network by pivoting to its center. Trump used to call this news organization “the enemy of the people,” that he tried to ban from the White House press room, is even hoping to appeal to — get this — some Fox News viewers.
“In this age,”A former head of another news channel predicted it. “that strategy is doomed.”
Brian Stelter, who’d been tirelessly pushing back against Donald Trump’s “fake news” offensive and Fox News’ conspiracy-mongering for much of his nine-year stint as host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,”The program is over. His Sunday morning media analysis show, which he had hosted for many years, was abruptly cancelled on August 18. Chris Wallace, an ex-Fox News star, has been appointed anchor of a shiny new Sunday evening interview program at 7 p.m. So far, Don Lemon, Jim Acosta and Jake Tapper — all of whom have been tough-as-nails critics of the former twice-impeached ex-president — are looking safe. But you never know.
“This is a time of change and I know that is unsettling,” Christ Licht, CNN’s new CEO told CNN employees at an Aug. 19 staff meeting (he replaced Jeff Zucker when it was revealed last February that Zucker had been having a consensual affair with one of his key lieutenants). “There will be more changes and you might not understand it or like it all.”
Licht seems like the kind of guy who doesn’t waste time; he’s already banished the ubiquitous “breaking news” banners that used to be part of the network’s on-air wallpaper and discouraged the use of the phrase “Big Lie” to describe Trump’s bogus election fraud claims.
Others even higher up the corporate ladder have been hinting at further changes, including David Zaslav, the CEO of CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery (since Warner Bros. merged with Discovery for $43 billion last April). He’s urged the network to tone down its political rhetoric and bring more conservative voices to the channel. “America needs a news network where everybody can come and be heard — Republicans [and] Democrats,” he told reporters at Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley gathering in July.
This strategy might have some merits, but it is not without its flaws. After all, the network’s current tactics aren’t exactly doing gangbusters. Revenues are downAlthough not disastrous, CNN is expected to make $957million this year. This is just a fraction of its 2022 profitability target. The ratings are also falling, with CNN trailing MSNBC in viewers for the past 18 months. Meanwhile, MSNBC and CNN have been following Fox News for many years. To be fair, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are all fighting for the same audience in blue states, while Fox has its own audiences in red states.
CNN has decided that it will pivot. And some folks think that’s a grand idea.
“The approach could be really smart,”Paul Hardart, NYU’s marketing professor, said that. “CNN was founded by Ted Turner as a straight news organization. It just sort of organically became the opposite of Fox. Moving back to what CNN was originally, I think that’s a reasonable strategy.”
Jon Klein, who headed CNN from 2004 to 2010, agreed – not surprising since a middle of the road strategy was the signature of his tenure leading the network. “It’s not only the best strategy to follow, it’s the only strategy,”He says. “When I was running the place, we had a very high percentage of viewers who would watch us and then go watch Fox. We shared a lot of viewers with MSNBC because they trusted us to tell them what’s going on. We had the highest ratings we ever had. The last time CNN beat Fox was the election year of 2008.”
Still, despite all that, there is one not-so-small hitch to CNN’s new straight-down-the-middle master plan: It’s not 2008 anymore.
Back then, when Klein’s CNN was on top, there were still two functioning political parties in America. A Republican and a Democrat could be seated together on the same TV screen. The worst thing that could happen is a passionate ideological debate over the marginal tax rate, which should be 37% or 42%. While there was fringey craziness regarding Sarah Palin and the possibility that she could visit Russia from her house, the majority of the time the center held. It was mostly a matter of good judgment.
Today, however, sanity can be hard to find. How will CNN bring together the Republicans of Congress once Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney, U.S. House members, to have a rational exchange of ideas on its airwaves? The one who thinks Bolshevik plot to arm IRS under President BidenTurn America into Sweden. Or, the one who thinks the late Hugo Chavez hacked into America’s voting machinesTrump to be cheated out of a second term? How will CNN invite them? “other side” on its airwaves when all that’s left of the other side often seems completely bonkers.
Although it is an idea that could be used as a business plan for CNN, the idea to de-politicize CNN seems unlikely. Over the 14 years that have passed since 2008, cable news viewers seem to have only strengthened their silos. Hardly anyone bops from CNN to Fox News to MSNBC anymore, unless they’re forced to (Like when social scientists paid regular Fox News viewers two weeks to watch CNN, to see if it had an impact on their political views.). CNN might be able to lure Fox viewers with its cancellations “Reliable Sources”It seems unlikely that any attempt to find a middle ground will succeed, as it was with the CNN+ streaming service which only lasted about a week last spring. Most likely, CNN will irritate its viewers and drive them to MSNBC.
CNN may not have a central point in this political landscape, where one side (and cable dial) believes it is free from reality or facts. It might be the one it is already occupying.
“Most of us are there already, standing up for democracy, decency, covering the news,”According to one network staffer of high rank,. “Walter Cronkite — that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Sharon Waxman and Katie Campione contributed reporting to this story.
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