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This Is CNN?

“CNN isn’t able to hate Donald Trump more than MSNBC, and there isn’t room for two networks to do it.”

Andy Bloom

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About a week ago, I noticed a headline in one of the many e-newsletters I receive proclaiming, “CNN Suffered Its Worst Ratings Week in Nine Years.”

The item seemed vaguely familiar to me. I thought perhaps I was reading an email from last year. In fact, I could have been.

“CNN Ratings Plummet 80 Percent to Start 2022” was one that I found from January 14, 2022. The article reported CNN averaged 548,000 viewers for the week of January 3, 2022. CNN finished third behind MSNBC with 746,000 and Fox News with 1,408,000.

CNN’s fortunes didn’t improve in February 2022. The month started with the resignation of long-time network president Jeff Zucker. The investigation that led to the firing of 9 p.m. (ET) anchor Chris Cuomo uncovered a consensual but undisclosed affair between Zucker and subordinate CMO Allison Gollust, which led to his resignation.

Weeks after Zucker’s departure, a New York Times article revealed that Gollust, the Chief Marketing Officer, influenced questions CNN asked Governor Andrew Cuomo – her former boss – in an interview, which led to her forced resignation. The marketing person? Come again?

The February ratings headline read: CNN’s Ratings Collapse: Prime Time Down Nearly 70% in Key Demo. While 25 – to – 54-year-old viewership was off 69%, total audience was off 68%. To be fair, CNN could say that the ratings in early 2021 spiked because of the January 6th incident at the Capitol. After all, MSNBC was down 62% in demo and 47% in total audience. On the other hand, Fox News Channel was up 6% in demo and 2% among total viewers.

There is an art to timing the start of a new job. I’ve taken over the reins of a few stations that seemed as low as they could go myself. Surely, this is what Chris Licht must have thought when he was named Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of CNN Worldwide in April 2022.

In early 2022, CNN was promoting CNN+, a long-planned streaming service. It launched at the end of March. In April, just prior to Licht’s arrival, CNN’s new parent company, Discovery, shuttered CNN+. It was a disaster that lasted one month.

Licht came from CBS, where he was Executive Vice President of Special Programming. He was also Executive Producer and showrunner for “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” The show won an Emmy for “Stephen Colbert’s Election Night 2020: Democracy’s Last Stand Building Back America Great Again Better 2020.” For me, it was an ominous precursor regarding CNN’s prospects. But Licht wasn’t without serious credentials.

In addition to CBS content and Colbert bona fides, Licht’s resume included Vice President of CBS News and Executive Producer for “CBS This Morning,” which he helped launch in 2012. He previously served as Morning Joe’s senior producer and Scarborough Country’s executive producer.

In a memo Licht wrote to CNN staffers upon the announcement of his appointment, he wrote: “David Zaslav has given me one simple directive: To ensure that CNN remains the global leader in news.”

Before the Warner Media and Discovery merger, David Zaslav, who would become the CEO of the combined entity, said in an interview on CNBC, “I think overall we’d probably be better off if we just had news networks in America.”

Zaslav wasn’t the only one. John Malone, a Discovery board member and one of its major individual shareholders, said in an interview also on CNBC, “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing,”

So it wasn’t entirely surprising when Axios reported in early June: “CNN’s new boss Chris Licht is evaluating whether personalities and programming that grew polarizing during the Trump era can adapt to the network’s new priority to be less partisan.” The report continues, saying that those who cannot adapt will be “ousted.”

A couple of weeks after the Axios report, Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources had its lowest-rated month in two decades. Stelter had become one of the liberal faces of the network. By mid-August, Reliable Sources was canceled, and Stelter was out.

Licht’s next move was in mornings. It’s an area where he had particular expertise. Licht personally picked Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow, and Kaitlan Collins to host CNN This Morning.

Lemon could be the poster child for CNN Liberal. He failed at night. Why did Licht think he would be more successful in the morning? Not even Lemon bought the idea that it was a promotion.

Collins previously reported for Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller. Why did Licht expect her and Lemon to get along? There has been at least one significant blow-up on December 8th, and since then, a concerted effort to keep the two apart as much as possible.

The result? “CNN This Morning” just had its lowest ratings week since its debut three months ago.

According to “The Wrap,” Executive Producer Eric Hall is moving to “CNN Tonight.” It quotes an insider as saying, “The show can’t decide strategically what exactly it is, so it’s trying to be everything which can create whiplash for a viewer when segments seem off-brand in tonality.”

Because it never ceases to amaze me what my liberal friends think I invent, I’ve cut and paste the ratings from “The Wrap”.

CNN just notched its lowest ratings in nine years across all its day parts for the week of Jan. 16 through Jan. 22, 2023, according to Nielsen averaging just 444,000 viewers in primetime, 93,000 in the all-important age 25-54 news demographic and 417,000 in viewers and 80,000 in the demo for total day. It’s the first time since May 2014 that the network failed to reach 450,000 viewers.

By comparison, during the same period Fox News drew 1.4 million viewers and 176,000 in the demo while MSNBC notched 629,000 total viewers and 69,000 in the demo. In primetime, Fox News had 2 million viewers, 256,000 in the demo and MSNBC had 943,000 viewers and 91,000 in the demo.

 “CNN This Morning,” also suffered the lowest week since its launch just three months ago. It averaged just 331,000 viewers while “Fox & Friends” had nearly 1 million and “Morning Joe” drew 760,000.

These are weekly ratings. Nobody in radio or cable news should live or die by weekly ratings, but CNN keeps getting one lousy headline after another. There is a definite trend.

I’ve been on the receiving end of a few stories like this one. Sometimes they are unfair, although I think this one is not. Still, I have no idea what levels of internal resistance Licht is facing. I know I’ve been undermined at stations in ways that I couldn’t believe when they were happening. Someday, I’ll write about them. Maybe the irresistible object has met the immovable force at CNN?

There’s a cable news network for people who want a presentation from the left and the right. CNN isn’t able to hate Donald Trump more than MSNBC, and there isn’t room for two networks to do it. What seems lacking, and I haven’t done any research to prove it, is the Joe Friday network – “just the facts, ma’am” (or sir).

It seems to me that Licht has the support of Messers Zaslav and Malone. CNN can’t get there with Don Lemon, Jim Acosta – even in a reduced role – and most key people that are still on the air. Licht will have to do some serious house cleaning. If there is a position for a third cable network, even if it was the first one, it’s as the journalistic juggernaut and worldwide reporting behemoth that CNN was in the beginning.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Bob Bellin

    February 7, 2023 at 2:07 am

    This is a good piece. CNN is in real trouble, although the in demo numbers aren’t as bad as the overall ones. The real question is what they should do about it. My guess is that they’ve done research into a straight ahead news approach and that it doesn’t look promising. Further, they’ve been the “breaking news” sensationalist voice on cable for so long, it might be difficult to get viewers to CNN as a credible straight ahead news source.

    Maybe cable viewers aren’t looking for hard news from TV period. It could be that there’s an audience for a reality show channel featuring lots of frontal nudity…I wonder how that would do in demo?

  2. Andy

    February 7, 2023 at 3:01 am

    Bob,
    Thanks. We agree on this.
    If straight-ahead news isn’t going to work for CNN, then I don’t know where they go. I have no research for television. My radio research suggested that there was a hole for what I labeled “just the facts” news, but that research pre-dates Donald Trump’s escalator ride. I have no idea if it is still valid.

    In 1998 I had an idea that I called “Notorious TV.” It would have been, at the time, Morton Downey Jr plus Real World (and then Big Brother) meets what became TMZ (I just called it tabloid stuff)…but I was in the wrong place (Minneapolis) at the time…it would have had a lot of the front nudity you suggest. I just had no idea how to start a cable network – nor the resources. Damn!

    Who knows, maybe that’s CNN’s million dollar idea, because they are going no where doing what they doing now. Whatever it is.

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BNM Writers

Soledad O’Brien Has Public Service at Heart in Her Reporting

O’Brien admits she didn’t fully grasp what public service reporting looked like until her coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

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A photo of Soledad O'Brien
(Photo: Hearst Media Production Group)

“Fearless,” “determined,” and “kind,” is how many former colleagues would describe Soledad O’Brien. Awarded the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation Insight Award this year at the NAB Show, the veteran journalist spoke with Barrett News Media about her career and what makes her work so impactful. 


Her love of people and figuring things out initially had O’Brien headed to Medical school. Realizing she wanted something else in life, the broadcaster found her passion translated nicely from medicine to journalism.

“I started working in a group called Centro, which was a Spanish language program at WBZ-TV. I just loved going into the newsroom because I loved the energy and the action,” O’Brien recalled. Another appeal was, “No matter if you had a great show or a terrible show, it was over and you started again.”

From WBZ-TV, she moved on to NBC News, KRON in San Fransisco, MSNBC, and back to NBC before joining CNN. For the last 11 years, the native Long Islander has been running a production company along with her own show Matter of Fact, a podcast (Who Killed JFK), and several documentaries.

This year she was honored with the LAFB Insight award for her outstanding journalistic body of work. The award comes after winning several honors in 2023, including a Peabody Award for her documentary on Rosa Parks, plus an Independent Spirit Award for a series mostly centered on Black women who are missing. Also in 2023, O’Brien was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame.

Soledad O’Brien was humble about her accolades, saying “It’s always a really amazing thing when your colleagues give you an honor. When people who actually understand the business and know what it takes to do the work that you do say ‘We want to celebrate the work that you’re doing.’”

She noted how beautiful the ceremony was. “It just made me feel, outside of the 10 million hairstyles I’ve had over the years, the range of stories I had the opportunity to tell and be a part of. And, hopefully, I brought some insight and some perspective which was maybe different than what other people brought.”

She noted her most meaningful story was her time in New Orleans.

“I think as a reporter, it was a big turning point. I sort of figured out that reporting was about serving the public, and I’m not sure I 100% understood that before,” Soledad O’Brien admitted. “And it was an opportunity in a story to help people understand not just the storm and the damage, which was massive.

“If you thought Hurricane Katrina was about a storm, it really wasn’t. It was about the have and the have-not in America, right? It was about access, and it was about whose voices get heard, who gets elevated, and what does it mean to be in a relatively large city in America that doesn’t seem to be getting any help pretty fast. And it was about race in America, too, and all those things which made it a very dynamic and complex and complicated story.

“I got a lot of awards for covering that story, but I really enjoyed interviewing people and helping people understand. One question we get, ‘Why don’t people just leave?’ Well, if your parents and your grandparents all live on the same block, where are you going? Can you just pick up and move into a hotel for a month? Well, no, it just doesn’t really work like that. So, I think we were able to bring a lot of insight in that story, and also help people see the lives of people who honestly we don’t really spend a lot of time covering in daily news.”

Swapping out with her co-anchor every month, O’Brien recalled leaving the area.

“We were walking through the Baton Rouge airport, and I remember I had my CNN baseball cap on and there were no showers. I remember packing baby wipes. My kids were little. And I took those big bags of baby wipes, and that’s how we cleaned ourselves up. There were no showers, obviously. We lived in an RV on Canal Street. And I remember we got a standing ovation walking through the airport. I felt like it just was a sign that what we were doing was really valuable and important, and people needed us to help them understand what was happening.

“It was really remarkable. It was very it was very emotional. We felt like, ‘Oh, this job is about serving your viewers and also serving the people whose story is unfolding in their backyards. And they need help to get assistance to understand what’s happening and to get their own perspective out.’”

Today, Soledad O’Brien said she serves the public in several different ways, including on her show Matter of Fact.

“The whole entire ethos of our show is stories as diverse as America. So in an environment where the nation is quite divided and things are often tense and unpleasant, we’re actually, kind of cutting out the middleman.” She went on to say, “We don’t really focus on politicians. We really dig into how policy lands on people. So we’re much more interested in what people have to say about their experiences. And I think that’s been a very interesting perspective for us.”


With her and her team’s focus on voices that are often ignored in the media, she believes this niche is “Exactly an example of serving the public.” Her show is also able to avoid the typical talking heads saying her show is, “Helping people understand complicated issues and stories versus, the two people on TV, they’re diametrically opposed and let them yell at each other for four minutes. And then I’m going to say, ‘Oh my goodness, thank you so much for joining me. We got to go to break now.’ I’m not doing that. And I think because we’re focused on that service, it’s really made the show very successful and popular.”


Part two of Barrett’s conversation with Soledad O’Brien will be coming to a screen near you at a later date.

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BNM Writers

Talk Radio Talent and Producer Coaching Tips From A Master — Part 2

“Mostly with the work that I do in spoken word, I think a producer is strongest when they help pull out your point or the best part of a topic.”

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David G. Hall is an international radio programming consultant who achieved fame in 1991 when he reinvented news and talk radio at KFI, Los Angeles.

I recently shared his insights into coaching talk radio talents.

In part two of our conversation, DGH talks about coaching producers and talent of shows
with multiple hosts.

DW: How do you coach producers? What do you need them to do for the talent?

DGH: Well, mostly with the work that I do in spoken word I think a producer is strongest when they help pull out your point or the best part of a topic. So you say, ‘Oh, we got to talk about this bridge collapse in Baltimore, man. I don’t really know what I want to say.’ And then the producer says, ‘Well, what pisses you off about it?’ Or, ‘What’s the thing that nobody gets?’ And you go, ‘Well, nobody understands X.’ Then the producer says, ‘That’s what you start with right there. There’s your way in and then you can explain it.’

So, (the producer’s job is) to kind of pull out from you what you really want to say, because sometimes it’s hard to find that on your own when you’re just doing everything in your head. So, your producer says, ‘Ok, that’s where you want to start right there,’ and then does whatever research is necessary to help you back that up or to come up with examples or come up with audio.

DW: What about two or three people shows? How do you get them on the same page consistently, learning to think like each other, and not make those hard left turns in conversations?

DGH: I have to deal with that a lot with shows where there’s more than one person. It’s important to help people in multiple-person shows understand you don’t have to say too much to get a lot of attention. A lot of people in that second chair want to keep talking because they feel like if they don’t talk, they’re going to be invisible. But it doesn’t work that way.

So I spent a lot of my time coaching people I would call the second chair people, but they’re really co-hosts, on how to be engaging in a certain way and how to not make a hard left where then all of a sudden you have the listeners, and worse, your co-host, going ‘What the hell? How do I respond to that?’ That comes up a lot. And in music morning shows, I try to keep them from talking over each other and stuff like that.

But the hard part comes with the payoff because when they’re doing a bit or they’re doing a benchmark, I want everybody laughing and smiling as the song starts, and as soon as everybody’s laughing and smiling, get the hell out and start the song. What happens is, especially if there’s more than two people, they one-up each other, right?

So somebody has the perfect out where they should hit the song and then the other person goes ‘Oh, no, no, no,’ and then they say something that causes the first person to try to beat that and before you know it you’ve got four punchlines, each one worse than the one before. Start the song, get the hell out, and prepare for your next bit.

DW: This is great stuff. What would you add or how would you summarize all of this for radio talents and the people who coach them?

DGH: I have three things. The first is you have to be consistent and regular. So if you’re gonna tell me to do this differently, you better show up in a week to remind me because all of us on the radio get stuck in habits and in a comfort zone, right?

So I’ll do what you say today and maybe tomorrow, and by the next day, maybe half. And then by the day after that, by Friday, I’m not doing it at all. So you better show up on Friday to say, ‘Hey, I heard you on Monday, man, you sounded great!’ Then help me break bad habits and set new ones, because we all are creatures of habit when we’re on the radio.

Second thing I would say is: be as specific as possible. It was never helpful to me when someone would say ‘Great show.’ Yeah. Ok, thanks, but that doesn’t mean anything to me.

But, when the market manager or PD says, ‘Yesterday when you interviewed that guy and you asked him this question, oh my god that was fantastic!’ As a talent with ego, I’m assuming he heard the entire show, even though he’s commenting on one thing. But that one thing is much more valuable than just ‘Hey, great show’. And then the third thing I would say is Joe Crummey. I don’t know if you know the name Joe Crummey.

DW: Yes, we’ve never met but we’ve become online friends. I love his work.

DGH: When I was first PD (at KFI), Joe Crummey said something key that I think about all the time when I’m working with talent and from when I was on the radio. He said, ‘When you’re on the radio, you walk a plank every single day and you just hope to God that you don’t fall off.

‘Because, unlike television, unlike Jon Stewart or Jimmy Kimmel or Stephen Colbert, we don’t have a writer’s room of 22 people sitting behind us thinking of every brilliant word we’re gonna say. You have to mostly do it yourself and mostly do it right off the top of your head. And if you’re on the radio three hours a day, five days a week, you are coming up with 15 hours of original content every week, walking a plank, not making a fool of yourself, not humiliating yourself, and not losing your train of thought.

It’s tough to create that much original content and to keep your train of thought and not humiliate yourself.’

DW: And to do it with no real-time feedback from the audience.

DGH: Right, exactly. You have no idea how it’s landing. That was one of the most valuable things anybody has ever said to me in this business. And to this day, I think about that. When I work with talk show hosts who are on the hook for hours without anything to hide behind, no songs, maybe a newscast at the top of the hour, but not much else I always think, ‘Man, you are walking a plank and it’s all original content.’

I really respect that, I really respect the talent necessary to be able to do what we do without humiliating ourselves, without getting sued, without getting fired, and with our toes dangling off the end of that plank for hours a day, every single day.

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BNM Writers

News/Talk Radio Hosts Need to Remember It’s Ok to Act Your Age

This same strategy can apply to a story that may pre-date your time in the market where you’re hosting your show. Study up, but lean on those who know.

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Professional microphone in radio studio

For many, we all can fall into a groove of trying to be something we’re not. And the audience is bound to sniff you out as inauthentic. The older radio guy wants to seem hip when discussing social media and refers to his account as “Face-Chat” and “You-Book.” Oops. The younger guy wants to pretend he knows everything about the 1980 election, including the myth that Ronald Reagan came from 10 points down in late October to beat Jimmy Carter. You can read about it here.

I bring this up in the wake of last week’s breaking news story surrounding the death of O.J. Simpson. Social media exploded with reactions and hysterical memes, while talk radio re-lived “The Trial of the Century.”

As someone who was six years old during the White Bronco chase and seven years old as the trial unfolded, I have little memory of the trial itself. I remember it, but the day-to-day details are meaningless. As someone interested in historical events, I’ve read plenty about it and watched documentaries, but I wasn’t there. My only memory of it is watching O.J. on the news in my parents’ kitchen.

So, the day after O.J.’s death was announced, I had minimal anecdotal stories to share. And if you’re a younger host, there’s no reason to be embarrassed by this. After all, it was 30 years ago at this point. Now, someone over 55 might think it was 20 years ago, but my dad, pushing 70, believes 1978 was 30 years ago. It was over 45. So, I rest my case. Time is a blur. You have nothing to be ashamed of. 

But at the same time, don’t pretend to be something you’re not.

I spent Friday morning discussing how infatuated I was diving deep into YouTube archives, finding old local TV clips in Los Angeles from the Rodney King riots, mentioning New York Times articles I stumbled upon during the trial in 1995, and weaving that into the content of the day. My approach was to be the authority on the topic since that’s the job, but not pretend that I lived through it in any meaningful way.

That’s when I tapped into guests. Gregg Jarrett from Fox News covered the trial for Court TV. His stories were outstanding. On a whim, I reached out to Randy Cross, a former 49ers player who spent two seasons as a teammate with O.J., and he shared insights that only he could share.

Then, we worked from our local angle, with a great story from former Kansas City sports anchor Frank Boal, who talked about the Bruno Magli shoes that were a centerpiece in the trial. Coincidentally, a photo was used from when O.J. Simpson was on Monday Night Football broadcasting a game at Arrowhead Stadium where he was wearing… you guessed it, Bruno Magli shoes.

So, let your experts be experts. And don’t try to trick your audience into being something you’re not. Let them share their stories as well. Several California transplants to the KC area shared incredible stories from their lives. Let them be the stars and have their moment, assuming it’s compelling content.

This same strategy can apply to a story that may pre-date your time in the market where you’re hosting your show. Study up, but lean on those who know, let your audience participate if and when appropriate, and don’t be the know-it-all, especially when it’s obvious you can’t be on the same level as some of those listening.

Your audience will thank you for it because you’re being authentic with them, and that’s what they want. If you lose your authenticity, you’re done. 

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