JEFF ZUCKER, boss of CNN Worldwide, a cable-news firm, likes to start his morning with a shot of numbers. Every weekday at 9am he confers with his teams in New York, Atlanta, Washington, DC, and other bureaus to discuss ratings and web traffic, and to decide what news to cover. On February 4th a story reconstructing the final day of Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor who died of a heroin overdose (see obituary), boosted CNN’s website. Mr Zucker wanted to “push it” on TV too. As producers pitch the stories they plan to cover, Mr Zucker pitches them his own, including more on Hillary Clinton’s election prospects, how bad weather affects America’s economy and whether drinking two fizzy drinks a day will actually kill you.
Previous bosses at the channel rarely attended morning news meetings, but Mr Zucker has been hands-on since January 2013, when he took over the role. However, he also believes that CNN cannot live by news alone. The cable channel, owned by Time Warner, a media conglomerate, has often performed poorly in the ratings compared with its politically partisan rivals in America–left-leaning MSNBC and conservative Fox News–unless big news is breaking. There is no glory in the role of unbiased “referee” between two partisan networks, Mr Zucker tells his staff. “Nobody goes to the game to see the ref.”
Instead CNN is trying to lure viewers by airing original films and television series that are either licensed or produced in-house. In October it showed “Blackfish”, a splashy documentary about a trainer at a marine park who was killed by a whale. Last month Mr Zucker attended the Sundance film festival to show three films produced by CNN, and to buy the rights to air another, called “Dinosaur 13”, about palaeontologists discovering a Tyrannosaurus skeleton. Next month “Chicagoland”, a reality-TV show for political junkies, set in the windy city, will begin. A travel series in which Anthony Bourdain, a celebrity chef, travels to exotic places, called “Parts Unknown”, has become one of CNN’s most popular shows, and may have helped the channel to attract around 8m new viewers.
Unfortunately, CNN and other American cable-news channels continue to travel to unfamiliar and dark ratings terrain themselves. Last year median prime-time ratings for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC declined by between 6% and 24% (see chart). The picture is not much brighter for business-news networks, such as CNBC. There is a “ceiling” to how many people are getting their news from television today, says Amy Mitchell of the Pew Research Centre’s Journalism Project. More people are turning to the internet.
CNN’s transformation under Mr Zucker is an attempt to boost ratings that are well below their peak five years ago. Viewing figures for all channels that provide general information are static or in decline. Recently DirecTV, a satellite-TV provider, dropped the Weather Channel because people can find weather information easily elsewhere (such as on the Weather Channel’s free website). Anyone who sits in on the morning meeting can tell that news is Mr Zucker’s passion. But what works today is entertainment.
Networks are now trying to distinguish themselves by airing more “event programming”, such as the Olympics, that get couch potatoes to tune in to live television. They are also pouring resources into developing new shows that might attract a following and set them apart from other channels. Programming costs at American cable networks will rise by more than 9% this year, according to MoffettNathanson, a research firm (which employs Mr Zucker’s brother-in-law). Mr Zucker’s strategy at CNN differs from his reign as the boss of NBCUniversal, a big entertainment firm, where he spent less on new shows and focused on cutting costs at NBC, the broadcast network. But NBC’s ratings flagged. Mr Zucker was reportedly fired after Comcast took control of NBCUniversal in 2010.
CNN’s critics point to its weak ratings but it remains immensely profitable. Last year it made an estimated $US340m on revenues of $US1.1 billion, according to SNL Kagan, a research firm. (CNN International, its growing international division, is not captured in those numbers; nor is HLN, another struggling domestic news channel that needs an overhaul.) A large share of its revenues comes from fees that cable operators pay for the right to carry it. To keep profits rolling in CNN needs more viewers so it can charge more to pay-TV operators and attract more advertising.
This is particularly important as CNN’s costs are also high. Its type of journalism is expensive; it probably has more news bureaus than MSNBC and Fox News combined. “We are in the produce business,” says K.C. Estenson, who runs CNN.com. “Our news comes and goes so quickly.” Frequent updates require constant attention and resources.
Cable-news channels are also experiencing what print newspapers started to see over a decade ago: people are abandoning them for the web, where advertising rates are much lower. In 2008 Mr Zucker, known for speaking his mind, worried about “trading analogue dollars for digital pennies”. Since then online-advertising rates have improved. But internet economics are still less attractive, even for CNN.com, one of the most popular news websites in the world. As newspapers and online portals are making video content that they can sell advertising against, CNN also faces new competitors from the web.
Meanwhile, some people at CNN want to see more dramatic investment in new programmes. In 2014 CNN will have around 70 hours of original films and shows: less than one-and-a-half hours a week, on average. “Are the changes going to be big enough for this new, brutal media climate we live in?” asks one CNN employee. More and more, news channels will depend on dinosaurs and killer whales.
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