Time To Put The News Back In CNN

Today, CNN hired a new chief. Jeff Zucker, former mastermind of NBC’s most recent success with Today and NBC Nightly news (before a failed tenure heading NBC Entertainment), accepted the job and will drive the mandate for change.

Yes, CNN faces a mountain of competition from emerging news sources online and the polarizing Fox News and MSNBC on TV. But the truth is, that competition is nothing new. CNN really peaked in 1991, when it put itself on the mainstream map with its live coverage from Iraq of the first Gulf War. I worked in the local TV news business in the 1990s and remember when stations would promote themselves as a CNN affiliate, even though its video feed service was available to any station in every market. That is an example of the “gold standard for TV news” brand cache CNN enjoyed for a few years.

But, just three years into its prime, CNN became OJTV, when it covered the O.J. Simpson trial wall-to-wall, even late into the day as the trial was held on the West Coast, essentially abandoning its all-news format. Following OJTV, in its efforts to rebuild, two things happened to set it back. First, Fox News began to pounce by creating a compelling brand and positioning itself as the “attitude” news channel (before preaching political doctrine). Then, Time-Warner corporate ownership downsized the newsgathering operation, weakening CNN’s ability to truly be a national and global news entity. CNN has never recovered.

The New York Times encapsulated Zucker’s introduction with this quote from him today, “I think we can remain true to the journalistic values that have always been the hallmark of CNN and at the same time we can continue to broaden the definition of what news is.”

CNN has 24 hours to fill. But let’s hope, for an hour each day in Prime Time, we can see a broadcast that fits the definition of news that won’t take any broadening. CNN has an opportunity to do a “straight newscast” in the midst of a universe of bias and commentary.

The concept of a 6:30 Eastern Time network newscast was born in the 1950s when, by 6:30pm weekdays, news viewers were home, finished with dinner, and in front of a TV to see what they missed in the news during the day. Now, we need a network newscast to fit the realities of 2013 and beyond. It needs to start no earlier than 8pm Eastern. It needs to assume we saw headlines on-line during the day, but missed the visual storytelling that only TV, especially in the HD age, can really communicate. It needs to provide reporting, beyond the headlines, that gives us more, without screaming partisan talking heads. It needs to respect that just-add-water controversies in national politics and stranger-than-fiction crimes are interesting to many, but there is other news important to us that’s tougher and more expensive to cover and we want that too. It should break stories that the audience will want to talk about online, sharing on social media. It should be anchored by someone credible, who cares about connecting with an audience more than having a pulpit. It should do what the “old 3” networks do at 6:30, but do it better, for a wider audience and for longer.

For so many years, CNN has tried to beat the other guys with talk and opinion in Prime Time. It hasn’t worked. It’s time to fill the void in the marketplace with a newscast – a retro product with true appeal.