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Second in TheWrap’s year-end cable news series
Media critics have been writing CNN’s obituary since late 2012, when the network flailed in third place behind MSNBC. Ratings had been on a steady downslide for years, and the hiring of former NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Zucker as president of CNN Worldwide in January was seen as both bold and risky, given Zucker’s scorecard at NBC.
But despite an unpredictable year at CNN that has seen a regime change, reporting blunders, and wild ratings swings, the oldest cable news network is poised to end 2013 on an uptick as the only one to see year-over-year growth from 2012 – an election year that benefitted from higher ratings overall.
As a consequence, product and PR have seemed to carry equal weight during CNN’s rebuilding year. Changing the conversation about CNN has been half of Zucker’s two-pronged approach to resurrecting the network, along with changing the actual programming.
“CNN is in a very different place now than it was last year,” CNN’s Senior Vice President of Communications Allison Gollust told TheWrap in a phone interview.
“The success that we’ve had just in 11 short months of a new administration is pretty extraordinary.”
Zucker initially came aboard with a scorched earth policy. The old regime – including EVP and managing editor Mark Whitaker and familiar faces like longtime CNN pundits James Carville and Mary Matalin and anchors like Soledad O’Brien – was out, and along with it some of the ratings failures that had long plagued the network.
The shows that would fill the schedule would be in line with Zucker’s new vision of a personality-based network with more news analysis, rather than just straight-off-the-ticker stories.
“CNN will always continue to be a leader in breaking news; our numbers propel us in that category,” Gollust said. “Our audience responds to the ebb and flow of news, so that’s one of the reasons why the strategy is a smart one to try to get more show coverage when there’s not breaking news.”
The massive makeover of CNN’s morning accompanied by a large marketing campaign complete with a catchy original Alicia Keys song, as well as dayside news changes have yet to yield substantial ratings returns. Morning show “New Day” with former ABC newsman Chris Cuomo premiered in June, and since has cut the gap with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and improved the time slot year-over-year. Although starting from where CNN was last year, that’s not necessarily reason enough to pop the champagne.
Also Read: Anderson Cooper Renews With CNN Through 2016
Zucker poached ABC’s Jake Tapper and gave him a premium 4 p.m. hour. The resurrection of “Crossfire,” which was canceled in 2005, seemed to be an effort to trap some of the lightning in a bottle that is Fox News’ “The Five,” but so far the half-hour pundit show has had middling ratings at best.
Meanwhile, the once-reliable primetime line-up has been flagging. “Anderson Cooper 360” saw its lowest ratings in two years just a few weeks ago, and “Piers Morgan Tonight” has never quite taken off after Larry King left the hour.
“It’s about figuring out the right strategy,” Gollust said. “Primetime will be a place that we spend some time.”
The biggest hits for CNN have been in nontraditional programming. “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” has been a consistent demo win since it premiered in April, as has “Morgan Spurlock: Inside Man.”
CNN Films scored huge with “Blackfish,” which pulled in 21 million viewers across all airings on the network. The documentary premiered at the 2013 Sundance International Film Festival and is on the shortlist for an Academy Award.
In fact, CNN announced Tuesday it would be dividing its film division into an acquisitions unit and a production unit.
Still, Gollust emphasizes that CNN’s bread and butter is breaking news.
“We have the utmost consideration for breaking news; that is never going to change about CNN,” she said.
“The minute breaking news happens, a bomb goes off in the Boston Marathon … we literally can flip a switch and be in breaking news mode.”
As Zucker finishes out his first full year at the helm of CNN Worldwide, there’s a feeling that nobody knows what he’s going to do next. But a CNN insider tells TheWrap that the newsrooms feel reinvigorated for the first time in years.
“The sense is that everything’s on the table, and that’s what makes it exciting.”
The post The Year in Cable News: CNN Weathers Turbulent 2013 With New Leadership and Rebounding Ratings appeared first on TheWrap.
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