CNN chief hunts for viewership as he prepares to cut jobs

If you have noticed changes on CNN, you can blame or credit former NBCUniversal chief Jeff Zucker.

In the year and a half since taking the news organization’s helm, he has experimented with much of what it puts on the air.

For starters, CNN now spends more time on big breaking news — as long as it juices ratings — and buys non-news series and documentaries that viewers are used to seeing on networks such as Discovery.

Yet as CNN tries to grow, Zucker will cut about 200 positions, mostly in Atlanta, a senior CNN executive who did not want to be named told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week. Those are smaller reductions than some CNN employees had feared.

The cuts will come as the overall CNN operation is on pace to generate record profits, the executive said. And top CNN officials expect to soon overtake rival MSNBC in prime time for the 25-to 54-year-old audience coveted by advertisers.

Zucker, in a recent interview with the AJC, said “I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve made CNN relevant again.”

“Sometimes people are making fun of us. Sometimes people are praising us. … But people are talking about us,” he said.

Still, CNN’s prime time ratings last year were the weakest in more than 20 years, and so far, 2014 is trending lower.

Some of that is part of a larger trend. Prime time viewership is down among all cable news networks through August of this year, compared to the same period in the presidential year of 2012, according to Nielsen figures.

CNN’s percentage drop was worse than that of giant Fox News Channel. Fox News continues to dominate ratings, with an audience typically bigger than CNN, MSNBC and CNN’s sister HLN combined.

CNN has gained some viewership over the course of the full day’s schedule, compared to the same period two years ago. Fox News’ full-day ratings dropped during the same period.

Fox News declined to comment publicly for this story. An MSNBC spokeswoman couldn’t be reached.

“I feel good about the progress we’ve made,” Zucker told the AJC. “We have a ways to go in completely implementing our strategy.”

With a reputation as a workaholic and a pedigree in TV production, he continues to experiment with what will attract and hold audiences when news is slow.

CNN has wrestled with that challenge ever since its launch. The task got tougher with the rise of Fox News and MSNBC, both of which have built followings bolstered by political opinion shows. Now the rise of online videos and news sites is also siphoning away cable TV news viewers.

“Our data suggest that the audience for cable news has really peaked,” said Jesse Holcomb, a senior researcher with the Pew Researcher Center’s Journalism Project. “It has been in a state of flat-lining or decline over the past five years or so.”

Cable news audiences also skew older, Holcomb said. The median age for CNN viewers in prime time is about 59. For Fox News, it’s about 67, even as the network retains a large chunk of target viewers aged 25 to 54.

As CNN deals with those challenges, it is under pressure to streamline operations. A senior executive for CNN told the AJC this week that a mix of buyouts and potential layoffs will eliminate about 6 percent of CNN’s nearly 3,500 full-time workforce worldwide.

The moves are part of parent Time Warner’s broader efforts to improve its Turner Broadcasting unit, which also includes TNT and TBS. Turner recently offered voluntary buyouts to nearly 600 veteran workers nationwide, including many at CNN.

Community leaders were concerned that CNN might move from Atlanta.

But Zucker, CNN’s first CEO stationed predominantly in New York, said, “Atlanta continues to be the hub of the CNN world. … (CNN) will continue to be based in Atlanta.”

If that much stays the same, many other things won’t in Zucker’s makeover of the news company.

He has hired away on-air talent from broadcast rivals, launched a morning show, messed with evening programming, eliminated Piers Morgan’s nightly interview show, chopped CNN radio operations and reincarnated the show “Crossfire” and then put it on ice.

He also has stuck with big stories as long as ratings hold up. That has led to criticism that Zucker is hyping stories even when there is little fresh news.

Zucker has been unapologetic.

One of his biggest bets is to convince viewers CNN is a place for entertainment, not just news. He’s trotted out documentaries — though he has said he hates the term “documentary” because it sounds boring.

His predecessor, Jim Walton, had already booked two new original series, including Anthony Bourdain’s adventure travel show “Parts Unknown.” Under Zucker, more series are on CNN’s air such as the fugitive-catching show “The Hunt with John Walsh.” CNN plans to air a dozen original series next year.

Zucker is gambling that he can bring in a broader and younger audience. So far, the new originals usually fill just an hour of CNN’s daily lineup. That isn’t enough to shift what Zucker has said he sees as a broader plateauing of the overall audience for cable news.

CNN’s leaders are making what seem like the right moves, said Rob Bochicchio, executive vice president-chief media investment officer at ID Media, which represents advertisers.

But, “It is not really showing in the ratings,” Bochicchio said. “I don’t know if they are going to have the stomach to keep the course.”

“Unless you are a frequent viewer of CNN, you don’t really know (the new programs) are there,” he said. “I don’t think people are seeking them out for those documentaries. They may as the years go on.”

CNN’s advertising revenues are projected to be down this year compared to five years ago, according to research firm SNL Kagan.

And over the years, advertisers have pushed down the rates they are willing to pay CNN for its audience. But CNN parent Turner has squeezed higher rates out of cable operators that pay to carry the network.

According to the CNN senior executive who spoke to the AJC, the news operation’s overall profits are on target this year to hit a CNN record of $600 million. That would be up about 10 percent from a year ago, according to the executive.

Richard Greenfield, a media analyst with BTIG Research, said CNN should invest in programming or online ventures to drive revenue growth. CNN’s news websites dwarfs Fox News’ in the number of visitors, according to data from comScore, an analytics firm.

CNN recently launched an iPad app that matches its live shows, on-demand shows and news clips with text and additional Web-based content. Consumers can download the app and log-in with their cable or satellite credentials.

“It’s the most innovative thing they’ve done so far,” Greenfield said. But, he said, not enough people know about it.

CNN needs its primetime lineup to generate regular and devoted viewership like Fox News has, Greenfield said.

“Beyond crisis,” he said, “they have to figure out how to be relevant.”