Although there is turmoil at CNN (anchor Campbell Brown leaving, ratings dropping for CNN’s U.S. primetime shows, talks under way about a merger with CBS News), that turmoil may not be the whole story. A recent National Journal piece presents a far rosier picture, which is reassuring for anyone who wants to see quality, objective TV journalism survive. The article notes that CNN as a whole (not just the U.S. primetime operation) had its most profitable year ever last year. While primetime ratings are terrible, CNN earns only about 10% of its revenue from those shows, it says. The article quotes Jim Walton, President of CNN Worldwide, as adding: “…the remaining 90 percent comes from non-prime-time programming on the network, as well as HLN [Headline News], CNN.com, CNN International, CNN en Español, CNN Airport Network, and all of the other CNN-branded news and information platforms that together deliver more news to more people than any other news organization in the world.” The article reports another healthy indicator: “Despite the prime-time slippage, CNN continues to attract more unique viewers than its competitors overall, according to Nielsen surveys. In April, its 90.2 million viewers topped the 82.3 million who watched Fox News and MSNBC’s 74.8 million. And HLN’s 79.5 million viewers add to CNN’s bottom line.”
As CNN approaches its 30th birthday this June, the outlook is decidedly mixed, but at least it is not all bad. CNN does well when there is big breaking news, and according to this article it still does well enough even on slow news days. If it were not part of a publicly held company whose stock is traded, it would not have to worry about pressure to show higher earnings every year, and could just make sure it covers its expenses, like a nonprofit such as PBS, whose NewsHour show is another example of quality TV journalism that makes a good effort at objectivity. But since it does have to contribute to profit growth, there is that pressure. The hope is that CNN execs will resist the temptation to goose the ratings with fluff, sensationalism, high-priced anchors, and opinionated news items. In a sense, the worst thing that happened to CNN was getting the huge ratings boosts it experienced in the first Gulf War and on 9/11, because they created pressure to try to keep the ratings up, which is not possible without sacrificing quality. As someone who joined CNN in its first year, I salute its successes and hope that it keeps to its promise of good journalism (despite occasional lapses — see my previous blog post).