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CNN's Digital Power Play

How CNN's viewers have embraced a converged world of TV and Web

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CNN has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. “Worst ratings in 20 years” kind of reasons. But digitally, it continues to thrive, regularly approaching 60 million unique users. And to hear digital svp, gm KC Estenson tell it, CNN’s digital success may actually be the source of its TV woes.

Adweek: Even though your focus is digital, what can you say about CNN’s TV ratings?
Our audience is watching CNN in ways that are not detectable in the Nielsen ratings. We’ve long predicted a future with convergence between TV and the Web, and we’ve been setting ourselves up [for that dynamic]. We feel like we have all the right pieces to succeed in this converged world. It’s coming at the industry faster than anybody predicted.

What evidence do you have that your viewers are changing their habits so quickly?
If you look at the TV Everywhere numbers, we average 20 million minutes a month across the platforms. And CNN Digital generates 110 million video streams per month. And only about 10 [percent] to 15 percent of our Web video is original. It’s primarily TV content.

How has authenticated viewing affected CNN.com?
It’s hard to get a uniques number for TV Everywhere. We bundle all of that together as general mobile. Once somebody gets the live network, we see 30 minutes dwell time.

So, you’re saying that CNN viewers do watch CNN, just not on TV as much?
They’re tied to each other. No doubt. They are concentric circles. But our audience is 15 to 20 years younger [than our TV viewers]. If CNN.com does a billion page views a month, around 250 million are on tablets and phones. If you watch what happens among mobile users, you see more engagement. That’s changing the whole dynamic. As you map that against penetration rates, engagement will only increase over time.

Is that very different than the dynamic at Fox News, which dominates the TV news ratings?
When I see the ratings stories and I see CNN getting bashed on TV, there is a huge story being missed. Our viewers consume media in a very modern media way. The traditional model works very well for Fox. That’s not our audience. Our viewers are educated, affluent, sophisticated. They’re global traveling citizens. The story about this brand is that its consumption habits are leading-edge.

OK, but the big money is still in TV, where Fox rules.
Yes, the money has always been there. But if you look at Mary Meeker’s report, it’s just a matter of time. It’s moving faster in mobile. Twice as fast. I think for us, we have an integrated sales team that sells across all the platforms. There’s stronger monetization than what’s being speculated. The ad story is going to catch up. Sometimes when you’re on the leading edge, it takes a little while.

What about the suddenly crowded digital news category?
There are a lot of desperate moves happening. This thing is going to break into quality and scale versus the rest. Once AOL and HuffPo came together, that created a very big news player. Of course, Yahoo is the biggest, but we don’t really compete with them. ABC News was ranked No. 7 or worse in the category, so they had no other choice [to partner with Yahoo.] And MSNBC.com is a very complicated mess. They don’t play in the premium, integrated sponsorship space we play in.