CNN Gets Hammered

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CNN, the channel that invented 24-hour news, is in trouble. Under the supervision of the management of its parent, Warner Bros. Discovery Inc. (NASDAQ: WBD), CNN has posted such poor ratings that it trails those of arch-rivals MSNBC and Fox News during part of the day. Warner Bros. Discovery has already failed in its attempt to manage the integration of the merger that created it, so the CNN problem should not come as a surprise. 

Under failed CEO David Zaslav, Warner Bros. Discovery was supposed to become one of the better-run huge media and entertainment companies. Zaslav had a reputation as a savvy operator. That may have been true when he ran Discovery, but a merger with WarnerMedia overwhelmed him. There were just too many pieces to track, and he had to take an ax to costs to carry the heavy burden of debt that went with the merger.

Among Zaslav’s plans was to make CNN into what it once was – an impartial, down-the-middle news source. He did away with the habit of anchors shouting “breaking news” every time the mayor of a small town hosted a pancake breakfast. 

Zaslav installed Chris Licht as CNN’s new CEO. Licht had been the executive producer of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Zaslav missed the point that comedy is not the same as news.

The results of the new CNN strategy were available fairly fast. According to the FT, “Ratings, meanwhile, were dreadful; earlier this month CNN fell behind MSNBC on a U.S. election night for the first time in its history, attracting 2.6mn viewers versus Fox News’s 7.4mn and MSNBC’s 3.2mn.”

CNN was never going to catch Fox News ratings. Fox’s “right-leaning” viewers are too loyal to its programs. CNN was considered left of center, politically. This worked for several years, but Zaslav did not agree that leaning in any direction was acceptable. 

Has Zaslav paid the price for his vision of CNN? It appears so. However, in the meantime, he has left a lot of money on the table. 

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