Is CNN Having a Sharon Stone Moment?

It appears CNN is getting its sea legs.

In 2013/14 CNN had some of its worst ratings ever as it continued the hard climb of rebuilding its cable network.

CNN is trying to re-invent itself with network chief Jeffrey Zucker’s mandate to “broaden the definition of news” and give CNN more “attitude and a take”. But has Mr. Zucker crossed the line of journalism by showing too much leg?

Fast-forward to the first half of this year. Tinkering with its UX in programing, news delivery packaging and original productions, CNN achieved a big ratings boost in Q1 ‘15, its biggest bump in years, although still trailing Fox News by quite a bit.

Q2 ‘15 also showed significant share gains, with substantial losses from competitors in key dayparts; CNN posting its “…largest quarterly lead over MSNBC in Primetime in nearly 9 years”, and Fox News registering “…ratings lows since before 9/11/01”.

In terms of their online talent, CNN is starting to establish strong franchises and appointment viewing around news stars/ brands; Wolf Blitzer / “The Situation Room”, Anderson Cooper / “AC 360°”, Jake Tapper / “The Lead”, Fareed Zakaria / “GPS”, and the pictured Kate Bolduan / “At This Hour”.

In terms of the viewer experience, I don’t think that the open setting, camera angles, and provocative panning and placement of Kate Baldoun is merely coincidence. I’m certainly not seeing this approach with Wolf, Fareed, Anderson or Jake 🙂

Both CNN and Ms. Bolduan need to be careful about incorporating too many “distractions” in their reporting of the news for the sake of ratings. Ms. Bolduan is much too smart and talented to leverage her assets in that manner.

CNN correspondents are consummate pros and need to pay close attention to managing their personal brands, being mindful their long term credibility is not compromised in the race for ratings.

As we’ve seen, careers and networks can lose credibility fast if they’re not careful e.g. just look at the rapid decent of Brian Williams at NBC, a complete surprise to his peers. Or Dan Rather at CBS years ago. Not for exposure of their legs mind you, but for more critical breaches of the ethics of the journalistic oath.

For broadcasters, or brands in any vertical, delighting consumers in all facets of the marketing mix (the “5P’s of UX™” as I call it) is key to building an enduring franchise through all structural “sea changes” that occur in the marketplace.

This takes experimentation, risk taking, and a nudge or two to get it right, knowing full well you can’t please all the people all the time.  And you will make mistakes, guaranteed. But hopefully not of the fatal variety…

A brand in any category can’t underestimate their audience response for a second — both the tangibles and intangibles — as the results can be catastrophic if marketers are not mindful and receiving real-time actionable feedback.

One should applaud CNN for its most current results, but at what long- term cost? Does CNN need to dial it back on the “attitude” meter?

When you want to see what’s happening in the news on CNN, what you often find are back-to-back Anthony Bourdain “Parts Unknown (which I love) or John Walsh “The Hunt” or “The Seventies” (a brilliant series).

Has CNN lost its raison d’être? Has Jeff Zucker gone too far showing “…more shows and less newscasts”?

Or is it just a reflection of todays 24/7 online mobile access to news, where “news-umers” are turning (or alerted) to instant coverage via mobile, but still looking for broadcasters to break-in with only the biggest stories?

News channels continue to sail unchartered waters searching for unique solutions for their brands. And there’s lots of learning to be had by marketers in all sectors that can be applied to their brands with similar business models.

No doubt the 2016 Presidential Election will be a bonanza for CNN ratings, but can the network sustain their momentum post-election based on their UX without this cyclical news variable or resorting to gratuitous measures?

That will be the truest test of their leadership.

Steve Goldman
About the author: 

Steve Goldman is the President at World Wide Mind, a global creative communications firm. He’s held executive leadership roles with advertising, marketing and communications organizations such as BBDO and TBWA.  Mr. Goldman is a Member of the Advisory Board for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, and has contributed several articles to Executive Vine.  You can follow Steve on LinkedIn and Twitter.