I left CNN nearly 3 years ago, and hadn’t worked in Prime Time for a couple of years before that. I haven’t been a heavy watcher since the presidential campaign ended last year (yes, I’m the typical CNN viewer – riveted to coverage when there’s a big story – forget it exists at any other time).
I’d like to say I was surprised when the news came out that CNN has fallen to fourth place in Prime Time ratings among the four cable news networks (Fox News, MSNBC, HLN & CNN). I’d like to say that, but I can’t. In the 7 years I was with the network, I watched their programmers flail about in prime, sure of nothing except Larry King Live. Larry (who is still alive, by the way) has the only prime hour on CNN that’s not in fourth place right now. He’s tied for third (which is still last place).
For a time, I wrote on a 10pm hour for Bill Hemmer. It was a straight newscast, and Bill’s a pretty good anchor and we had a good EP and line producer (both still with the network). Also wrote on a 7pm hour, also for Bill. Of course, he’s over at Fox now. Also worked on an 8pm hour for Greta Van Sustren. It was much less news-based, and more of the type of show she does at Fox now. During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, I worked on a live show, initially called “Live from Afghanistan.” It was a face-paced hour that covered all the bases. It evolved into 2 hours, looking at the wars there and in Iraq.
Once the fighting slowed, the network didn’t seem to know what to do in prime time, jumping from anchor to anchor, trying to find a personality who would attract and hold an audience. Connie Chung, Paula Zahn, Aaron Brown. They’d toss them up and hope something would stick and nothing has so far. The other three networks, including the other owned by CNN, HLN, use people with strong, nearly overpowering personas to drive their personality-based shows. I’m not a Nancy Grace fan, but like they do with O’Reilly and Olbermann, people seem to watch her. Strong opinions seem to draw viewers. Is it news? Not really.
Except for Lou Dobbs, CNN has seemed reluctant to turn early prime and prime over to screamers and shouters. But, their lackluster personalities are unable to compete with what people are watching on the other channels. And they’re really going to be in trouble once Larry King decides to do something else with his evenings.
I wonder if it might be time to go back to regular newscasts in prime time.