CNN has a problem. It wants to do real news on cable television.
That goal was made clear again last week. In a memo issued on his first official day as head of CNN, Chris Licht told his staff “too many people have lost trust in the news media.” The best way to recover trust, he wrote, was “educating viewers and readers with straightforward facts and insightful commentary, while always being respectful of differing viewpoints.”
Good luck with that.
Here’s the challenge facing the nearly 42-year-old network: Real news is for the curious. At its best, television news is delivered by people and for people who don’t believe they already know everything.
But cable news today is dominated by opinionated anchors, reporters and viewers who are the opposite of curious. Questions posed on these shows are rarely genuine – they’re rhetorical gamesmanship. The hosts know all the answers and so do the people watching. The last thing anyone wants to do is “respectfully” encounter “differing viewpoints.”
This framework exists because much of what’s now called cable “news” didn’t actually grow out of journalism. Instead, its origins can be traced back to talk radio. In that world, self-assured and bombastic hosts have one-way conversations with listeners. They exist to offer furious assurance to the audience that its anger and grievances are the only reasonable possible responses to modern life.
The New York Times’ recent examination of Tucker Carlson’s success on Fox News emphasizes this point: You build viewer loyalty by giving people exactly what they expect. You never color outside the lines.
According to the Times’ report, Carlson became an “avid” consumer of TV ratings called “minute-by-minutes.” Charted out on a graph, these ratings show audience growth or decline in every minute of a show. Hosts and producers can see what topics and commentary attracted viewers and which ones chased them away. In the news business, relying on those ratings too much can easily turn into a habit of doing nothing more than serving back to an audience the preconceived dogma they bring to you each day.
In the case of Carlson and others, this method delivers. The dilemma for CNN: finding the best way to go against that tide. Given what works in cable primetime right now, how do you simply tell viewers the day’s news – and still draw a sizable audience?
Real news can do that – it’s just much harder.
Television thrives on personalities, on-air talent who can forge a connection with the people watching. The over-the-top opinion host is one successful kind of talent, but TV news has other models that combine personality and connection with credibility, seriousness, and an open-mind.
Earlier eras of broadcast news overflowed with examples. Personalities like David Brinkley, Diane Sawyer, Linda Ellerbee, and Mike Wallace were trusted and curious journalists who attracted loyal audiences with facts, figures and true stories – absent hyperbole and conspiracies.
Licht himself has done this before. He helped create the popular “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, where the show’s hosts and regular guests deliver the news and offer a variety of viewpoints.
The new CNN boss launched “CBS This Morning” in a similar mold: smart journalists with strong personalities sitting around a table, reporting the news and conducting informed interviews from all sides of the political spectrum. (Note: Licht and I know each other from our years at CBS.)
Chances are Licht will lean in that same direction at CNN. He told his staff last week that he wants to find places for Chris Wallace and former NPR host Audie Cornish, both of whom were hired for the now-canceled CNN + streaming service. Both are real-news personalities who can engage viewers.
Warning: This approach will take time to fall into place. “CBS This Morning” was on the air for more than six months before it began to really click with viewers. The new CNN will try some things, fail at some things, and then try some more.
Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav has basically said that’s okay. He told an employee town hall he wants CNN to focus on maximizing impact, not profitability. Now, it’s up to him – and Warner Bros. Discovery – to hang with it.
In the end, though, success or failure in TV always sits on the shoulders of the audience. Are enough viewers honestly interested in breaking away from the intoxicating rush of anger and righteousness on offer in too much cable news? Can a substantial audience be built on serving people information without all the pre-baked answers?
CNN – and the rest of us – are about to find out.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ ironworker1.