While listening to the radio last week, I heard news that CNN is planning on incorporating reality TV and talk shows reminiscent of The View into its lineup in a [desperate] attempt to revive its ever-declining ratings. I was surprised that a network known for reputably reporting exclusively hard news would even contemplate entering the sordid world of reality programs, so I was immediately suspect. But I did some reading, and it turns out that CNN is looking to switch up its programming.

Now, the Canadian radio station I was listening to did get part of the story wrong. CNN intends to add “nonfiction programs” to its lineup, not “reality TV.” Is this distinction semantics? I’ll get to this later. CNN’s program revision immediately brought up questions of branding in my mind. The station obviously needs to change something to prevent itself from slipping further into the low-ratings abyss, but is this the answer? Is integrating “nonfiction programs” a smart move for CNN branding wise?

Is the Sun Setting on the CNN Empire?

For CNN, brand revision isn’t a question of “if”; it’s a question of “when.” Attempts to rebrand the cable-news network are born out of necessity: the network has to switch things up. In order to understand why, let’s briefly talk ratings. Things look bleak for the network: according to Ad Age, CNN hasn’t been the dominant cable-news network for almost ten years; it lags far behind Fox News and MSNBC, and even the adorable fits of laughter Anderson Cooper bursts into on AC 360 aren’t enough to salvage ratings. During the second quarter, it averaged its lowest ratings since 1991 and witnessed a 35% decrease in total viewers from last year alone. According to The Huffington Post, CNN posted an 11-year low in total viewers in April, succeeded by a 20-year primetime low in May. Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes expressed his disappointment with CNN ratings to reporters (CNN is owned by Time Warner). President of CNN Worldwide Jim Walton announced a few weeks ago that he was stepping down amidst ratings lows.


Anthony Bourdain: Enter Stage Left

The network is exactly right in that a revamping of its on-air programming is essential. In May, CNN hired Anthony Bourdain for a new food-and-travel series. CNN Worldwide executive vice president and managing editor, Mark Whitaker, commented on the new Bourdain show:

Examining the world through the prism of Tony’s unique expertise and passions continues CNN’s long-standing commitment to international reporting and to promoting global understanding.

The idea that food and travel relate to CNN’s dedication to international reporting might be a bit of a stretch, but I think it makes some sense from a branding perspective. Bourdain is a New York Times bestselling nonfiction author, and his show No Reservations won two Emmys. He has a sense of credibility, integrity, and experience surrounding him, and an enriching, inspiring show that spotlights different areas of the world can potentially fit very well with a network like CNN.

Yet, a network can’t pin all of its hopes on a single show, so CNN is pursuing other options, though it’s quick to emphasize that these shows will be “nonfiction original series” not reality shows, as the New York Post reported on Sunday. However, I think assimilating nonfiction programs into its program lineup is a bad move branding wise.

Keeping Things Consistent

I read the following in Ad Age:

But personalities and editorial missions from outside traditional TV news could still help the network refresh its image among young media buyers who weren’t around when the cable news network was at the top of its game.

I want to contest this statement. CNN is by definition a news network. Personalities and editorial missions from outside traditional TV news don’t match with the CNN brand. I’ve written on this before, but branding needs to be consistent, not confusing. A brand needs to make it extremely clear what it stands for, because when it doesn’t, people have to define it themselves, and this involves making a choice: “Is CNN a news network, or is CNN a reality-esque network?”

Brands need to have a well-defined identity and purpose; if CNN starts airing “nonfiction programs,” its purpose/mission/function becomes perplexing. Discerning the purpose of a brand should not involve guesswork, because such guesswork is one more obstacle to using that brand.

CNN tapped Piers Morgan to replace Larry King in January 2011. The ratings for Morgan’s 9 pm show have been less than stellar; in terms of viewers, Morgan falls far behind his Fox News and MSNBC contenders. Hannity and Rachel Maddow average 3-4x as many viewers as Morgan. I don’t think Morgan’s low ratings can be attributed to one thing, but I do believe that part of the problem with Morgan is that he doesn’t necessarily match the CNN brand. CNN hosts like Wolf Blitzer, Soledad O’Brien, and Candy Crowley are hard-news journalists. Morgan spent most of his career at The Sun and The Daily Mirror, which, for those of you who don’t know, are British tabloid magazines. Is Piers a good fit for CNN? Well, his interviews inspire in me a sense of confusion. Piers recently interviewed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (which was disastrous, in my opinion), and this was confounding: why is a British tabloid editor interviewing a Supreme Court Justice about the U.S. Constitution? CNN is a brand, so every person and show associated with that brand needs to function in a streamlined fashion.

But You Didn’t Have To Stoop So Low

(Shout out to all you closet Gotye fans!) Another problem CNN faces is the fact that most people believe the network will be introducing reality shows, despite CNN’s attempts to bill its new programs as “nonfiction pieces.” I firmly believe that the distinction between these two categories of television programs is not semantics and that CNN has no intention of airing shows that induce a collective cringe like Jersey Shore or Keeping up with the Kardashians, but the problem is that at this point, it doesn’t really matter what CNN plans to do. The general impression is that CNN intends to do debut reality shows. When I search “CNN ratings,” here are some of the results from the first page of Google:


There’s one mention of “nonfiction TV” to five mentions of the words “reality TV.”

I also saw this on Facebook last week:

What’s the problem with the phrases “reality TV” and “reality shows?” Word association is a powerful thing, and I think that those two words conjure up images of tasteless (and worthless) shows (again, I refer you to Keeping up with the Kardashians) and individuals who skyrocket to fame and make millions of dollars despite having no discernible talent. Those words are tainted with negative connotations. The basic function of CNN is to report news; it is a network with a high-minded mission. By introducing reality programs, CNN might not be having its friends collect its records and then change its number, but it is lowering itself. See: the comment below.

Reality shows are the antitheses of what a news network needs to be: credible, trustworthy, and noble.

Reality shows fit well on networks like E! and MTV, because these networks are founded on frivolity and fluff. Thus, E! can roll out ridiculous new shows like Kourtney and Kim Take New York and of course people will cringe, but at the same time, they don’t really expect anything more from the network. I think people expect more from a cable-news network. Part of branding is carving out a niche for yourself and then fulfilling that niche. E! has established itself as the entertainment network (literally speaking—the “E” stands for entertainment), so shows focusing on meaningless drama and stupidity make sense from a branding perspective. They don’t make much sense branding-wise for CNN, which has branded itself as a deliverer of the latest breaking news.

A Lesson C/O Ann Curry

CNN can try to rebrand itself as a news network and a nonfictional-program network, but when news programs and/or websites try to venture into the world of celebrity news and entertainment, people don’t react well. I like The Huffington Post on Facebook and every now and then, Huff Po will post news of the celeb variety, like this.

Every time without fail, people comment on this type of post expressing the fact that they simply don’t care about Miley Cyrus’ latest haircut. They follow Huffington Post for news, and Miley’s decision to chop off her locks is not news. People even state that Huffington Post is compromising its journalistic integrity by featuring such fluff.

Similarly, when NBC fired Ann Curry, people took to Facebook to express their disappointment that triviality has come to dominate The Today Show. I read numerous comments that said Today’s declining ratings are due not to Ann Curry’s co-host position but to the increasing amount of coverage the morning show devotes to entertainment segments. I think people will feel the same way when it comes to CNN. How do I know this? I read the comments on the numerous articles that have covered the CNN topic. A Huffington Post article covering the news generated 1,087 comments, which amounted to forty-five pages of comments. I read through the first ten pages of comments and there was one person who thought that reality shows/nonfiction programs on CNN might be a good idea. I should mention that the enthusiasm articulated by this person can be described as lukewarm at best. The changes CNN plans to make have drawn some harsh criticism, and if the network is paying any attention to Twitter, blog posts, or news sites, it will realize that the overwhelming majority of people are strongly against CNN incorporating reality TV-like shows into its programming schedule.

Give the People What They Want!

So, if nonfiction programs are a bad branding move, but CNN needs to change something, what is a cable-news network to do?

I recently wrote a post that talked about companies like Walmart that use social media sites to gain insight on consumer sentiment and the latest trends. CNN could benefit from this type of social listening, because the various comments and articles that have cropped up in response to their intended programming changes offer constructive criticism. They don’t simply lambast the network; they actually offer suggestions on what CNN can do to boost ratings. It’s like free market research!

According to popular opinion, CNN needs to forget reality programs, ditch the ideologically-minded pundits, and focus on reporting real, unbiased news. People might be on to something. Consider this: the leading cable-news networks are bent in different ideological directions. It’s well-known that Fox slants right and MSNBC slants left. (If you don’t believe this, watch a few minutes of Hannity or Rachel Maddow and then tell me otherwise.) If the comments on various articles are correct and people really do want balanced, fair-minded news, then this is great news for CNN, because there is currently a vacuum for independent analysis. If CNN can prove that it truly does present both sides of the news, then it not only fills that vacuum, but it gives the people what they want. Plus, this doesn’t require a total brand overhaul; it involves CNN returning to its roots and original mission. This is what I’ve gathered from perusing different websites: people don’t want a new CNN; they want the old, objective, non-talking-head-infiltrated CNN.

Thus, even if the distinction between “reality TV” and “nonfiction programs” is not semantics, it doesn’t really matter because people don’t want either of these things. MSNBC features nonfiction programs such as the prison documentary “Lock Up.” In trying to assess whether nonfiction programs can save CNN ratings, I attempted to see whether “Lock Up” has boosted MSNBC’s ratings. I found conflicting reports. The Washington Post states that repeats of “Lockup” draw more 25-to-54-year-olds (the coveted demographic in television) than live newscasts on the other cable channels. Media Bistro reports that when MSNBC switched from “Lock Up” to extended coverage of Romney’s VP announcement, ratings dropped by one-third.

Yet, MSNBC still trails behind Fox News in terms of viewers and the network has witnessed declining numbers of viewers (though not to the extent that CNN has).

A Direct Flight to Ratings Sucksville, USA

I found this comment on an article concerning CNN:

Shut it down?! This is obviously a 30 Rock reference.

Wallowing is no fun, but wallowing in Ratings Sucksville sounds particularly morbid.

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