Bum start for CNN's
'Zahn' and 'Cooper'

Best hopes for stemming slide against Fox News

By Kevin Downey

    CNN's hopes of reclaiming No. 1 from Fox News Channel were dealt a major setback this week with the disappointing premieres of “Anderson Cooper 360” and “Paula Zahn Now.”

     The audience for “Cooper” on Monday was down 47 percent in the 7 p.m. time slot occupied last year by “Crossfire,” to 319,000 people, while “Zahn's” audience of 508,000 people was down 45 percent in the 8 p.m. time slot briefly occupied by the canceled “Connie Chung.” All figures are based on preliminary Nielsen Media Research data.

     CNN's new programs pulled in roughly one-third the viewers of competing shows on Fox News. Most notably, “Zahn” faced “The O'Reilly Factor,” which was watched by more than 1.4 million people despite having a guest host on Monday.

      Of course, first-night ratings aren't enough to determine whether a show will be a hit or not. Moreover, CNN has yet to promote the shows to the extent it did “Connie Chung.”

     But clearly the “Cooper” and “Zahn” debuts are discouraging.

     “I think they would rather have had it start out high, although there is a chance they can build it up,” says Brad Adgate, senior vice president and corporate research director at Horizon Media.

    “They are trying to make [the network] personality driven, which is what Fox News has been able to do with people like Bill O'Reilly. It seems Fox News has been able to create appointment viewing, but it's a little harder to be the second person in on that.”

     The audiences for CNN's new shows, which are actually reworked formats for CNN hosts, follow the network's disastrous performance this summer.

     CNN's primetime audience fell 15 percent from last summer, to 746,000 people, and was down 9 percent in August.

     Those declines can be attributed in part to comparisons to this time last year, when the first anniversary of 9/11 was approaching and a war in Iraq seemed increasingly likely.

     Fox News' audience, however, was up significantly from that time.

     The network's audience in the summer was up 22 percent, to 1.3 million people, and was up 20 percent in August.

     “People might be getting sick of the news and returning to other things,” says Deana Myers, an analyst with Kagan World Media.

    “Fox News has a little bit more sensational news, whereas CNN just tries to report it.”

     CNN's standing in the cable news race is not good for Teya Ryan, CNN's general manager, who is reportedly being nudged out of the network.

     CNN would not comment on that rumor, but if Ryan were to leave she'd add to a list of top executives who have left the network. Walter Isaacson, for instance, resigned as chairman earlier this year.

    The reason for the departures largely comes down to CNN's slump.

     The network was down again last week. Its primetime audience dipped 4 percent from last year, to 791,000 people. That was less than two-thirds the size of Fox News' 1.25 million viewers, which was up 34 percent.

     Among the adult 25-54 demographic that many news advertisers favor, CNN's decline has been more pronounced.

     Its audience in the demographic fell 13 percent last week, to 212,000 people, and was down 15 percent in August and 17 percent in the summer.

      In the same time period Fox News posted low- to mid-single digit increases. Last week its 25-54 audience of 340,000 people was 2 percent higher than it was in the same week last year.

     Perhaps CNN can take some comfort in the fact that it's still doing better than MSNBC, the No.3-ranked cable news network.

     MSNBC's audience in the 25-54 demo was down 53 percent last week, to 82,000 viewers. That is less than half the size of CNN's audience and less than one-fourth the size of Fox News' audience.

    “They are trying to do the same thing as CNN, but it's very hard for them,” says Adgate. “They put on some personalities, but they haven't clicked with viewers.”

Sept. 10, 2003© 2003 Media Life

-Kevin Downey is a staff writer for Media Life.

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