Reeling CNN Faces Uphill Climb in the New Year

CNN's Anderson Cooper (Photo: CNN)

CNN's Anderson Cooper (Photo: CNN)

For CNN, 2011 is shaping up as a make-it or break-it year.

The battered granddaddy of cable news networks is finishing 2010 with its worst prime-time ratings since 1996. Even worse for CNN is how rapidly its audience is declining – an estimated 34 percent drop in prime-time viewership vs. 2009, according to several reports.

CNN averaged just 591,000 viewers for its prime-time shows in 2010, with the network’s keystone show at 9 p.m./8c – “Larry King Live” – coming in first as its highest-rated show. However, that’s not saying much when you consider that “King” averaged just 672,000 viewers nightly this past year – the long-running show’s worst year ever and the apparent catalyst for King finally calling it quits. (To put the “King” ratings in perspective, the highest-rated prime-time show in cable news is “The O’Reilly Factor” at 8 p.m./7c on FNC, which averaged 3.5 million viewers in November.)

The rest of CNN prime-time fared worse than “King” with the new “Parker Spitzer” at 8 p.m./7c making no headway in improving CNN’s audience in that hour and “Anderson Cooper 360” at 10/9c having its second-worst year ever in overall viewers with a nightly average of 664,000 viewers, according to TVNewser.

For CNN, the challenges are daunting. The network pioneered the concept of 24-hour cable news, but in recent years, it has found itself squeezed between the two other players in cable news, Fox News Channel and MSNBC. With FNC and MSNBC staking out clearly defined partisan territory on the right and the left, respectively, CNN strove for years to represent the “straight news” middle of the road.

And viewers flocked to CNN when major news broke, but in the long periods between such stories, viewers gravitated away from neutral CNN toward the more dramatic and, in many ways, more entertaining prime-time shows on FNC (the clear leader in cable news prime time) and MSNBC.

Now CNN is on the ropes and struggling to find a formula for the future. “Parker Spitzer” – co-anchored by the liberal Eliot Spitzer and conservative Kathleen Parker – represented one stab at a solution to CNN’s “neutrality” problem: A talk show with co-anchors representing both sides of the political spectrum. It hasn’t worked.

And on Jan. 17, CNN will introduce a new 9 p.m. show, “Piers Morgan Tonight,” an interview show starring a Brit who’s best known in the United States as a judge on “America’s Got Talent.”

What are the odds that Morgan will singlehandedly turn around CNN’s fortunes? We have our own opinion on that, but we’d rather hear yours. For that matter, what can CNN do in 2011 to gets its audience growing again?

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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