CNN Slips To Last Place In Prime-Time Programming

CNN's prime-time programs finished fourth and last among the cable news networks in October. CNN's programs finished behind not only Fox News and MSNBC, but also its own sister network HLN.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The network that created and defined cable news has now slipped to fourth, and essentially last place, in the ratings that count most with advertisers. We're talking about CNN and the new October numbers that are just in.

For more, NPR's David Folkenflik joins us. And David, what's happened to CNN?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, it hardly seems like a fair fight anymore. I mean, as you say, CNN sort of established the idea of cable news on the national presence in 1981 and thought it would be the defining voice seemingly forever. And it's run into this juggernaut.

You see FOX News, the most successful model currently in cable news, offering opinion from the strong right, claiming to offer news for a forgotten America - a different kind of story definition, different kind of beat, and with very different, lively, stimulating packaging of news. It's a little more tabloidy, a little more fun.

You have MSNBC, which is combining a full network news shop with now more fully voiced from the left, offering - taking a page out of the FOX book. Headline News now is exceeding CNN by some measures and ratings, and there's an irony there. It's, you know, the quick update, the thing you tend to see in the airports.

SIEGEL: Of CNN?

FOLKENFLIK: And it's a spin-off from CNN, as you say. So now, CNN no longer says, hey, we don't do live car chases from helicopter shots anymore. Well, CNN's sister channel separately, Headline News, does that with vigor and eagerness. So there's an irony in seeing Headline News pick up the pace. And CNN now says, look, it's the place where serious news gets covered. And, indeed, it is a place where people turn when real news happens or when there is incredible drama or epic weirdness like we saw with the Balloon Boy the other week.

SIEGEL: Yeah. But they weren't alone on that one.

FOLKENFLIK: No, they sure weren't. But, you know, otherwise, it's sort of stalling in place. And I think you can say CNN may well be most affected by the rise of the Web. People can check for headlines now on their work computers. They can go to, you know, Yahoo News, the leading news site on the Web, and not even have to turn on the TV clicker.

SIEGEL: Well, who is watching CNN, or for that matter, who's watching the other cable networks?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think it's fair to take a moment to break down those numbers because we're talking about a niche. You know, in the best case scenario for FOX News, which is the leading one you're talking about, call it three, three and a half million people, and we're really talking about in prime time, those evening hours when people are home to work, people between the ages of 25 to 54.

Advertisers focus on those as though for some reason people younger or older than that bracket don't spend money, which they do. But in that demographic you're talking about, say, Bill O'Reilly, who has over three million viewers a night. He gets about 880, say, thousand people a night. You know, that's a lot more than you see on, say, MSNBC, which is, say, a couple hundred thousand viewers, and yet a rerun of Keith Olbermann at a few more than 200,000 viewers is beating at 10 p.m., the first run show of Anderson Cooper, one of the stars on whom CNN was pinning its hopes.

SIEGEL: So what is the model for CNN then?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, audiences, you know, spike up during war or political drama or financial crises and national catastrophes, the weirdness I talked to, and they spike down otherwise. You know, they still say, look, we're making money through two revenue streams. We're making money through ads. We're making money through cable-subscribing fees that they get from the system providers, and they also have one of the most popular news Web sites in the country. It's currently judged by Nielsen. They're estimated to be second only to Yahoo News. But, you know, that's still a long way off from their glory days. They're still really fighting in what doesn't seem like a fair fight.

SIEGEL: But are you saying that the difference between, say, MSNBC and FOX on the one hand and CNN on the other is that CNN has not been opinionated enough in what it's doing?

FOLKENFLIK: It just hasn't seemed authentic in what it's doing. It doesn't have a unified voice. Its characters that it's pinned itself on haven't popped enough. You heard a lot about Lou Dobbs now and then, but mostly it was for offending people.

A lot of the folks they have in prime time, such as Campbell Brown, Anderson Cooper, haven't set the world on fire in that way. FOX News in particular, said, okay, we're going to be opinionated a lot of the time, and we're going to have fun a lot of time. And CNN doesn't seem to be able to do much of either at the moment.

SIEGEL: Thank you, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Folkenflik in New York.

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