How CNN Sells Breaking News

The inside poop on managing TV’s most sensitive inventory

CNN took plenty of heat yesterday for its extensive coverage of Carnival’s ill-fated “Poop Cruise”—upon losing power in the Gulf of Mexico, the cruise ship Triumph transformed into a drifting hellscape of overflowing toilets, food shortages and sickened passengers—prompting at least one Twitter wag to dub the network’s 4 p.m.-7 p.m. block The Shituation Room With Wolf Blitzer. (We’ll see how the wall-to-feces-spattered-wall coverage translates in the Nielsen ratings, when the numbers arrive later this afternoon.)

This all raises an interesting question from an advertiser’s perspective: when there’s a big story that captures the world’s attention—whether it’s a ship where life is imitating Lord of the Flies or the inauguration of an American president—how do you cash in?

Obviously, a known quantity is the easiest to sell. “The inauguration was very cool, because it was more than a political event,” said Greg D’Alba, Turner’s president of news and digital ad sales (D'Alba spoke to Adweek shortly before the Super Bowl). “It was a style event and a fashion event and a culture event.”

That’s an easier pitch than something like yesterday’s disaster, which perhaps may have been a proper fit only for the likes of Clorox. And for President Obama’s second public swearing-in ceremony, D’Alba had a range of clients lined up, including the financial services giant Black Rock, home security system Tyco and DreamWorks’ 12-time Academy Award nominee, Lincoln

“Some of the news events that occur are tough because of how graphic they can be and how life-changing they become,” D’Alba said. After all, you can’t exactly pitch Nokia on a spot about the death of Muammar Gaddafi, even though cellphones were directly involved. But D’Alba said that CNN doesn’t just sell on royal weddings and elections. “We have a good track record,” he said. “That makes it easier for our guys to represent the brand and the product in the marketplace.”

A spot buy meant to take advantage of the big deliveries for a breaking news story like the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan won’t necessarily be as comfortable a fit as a :30 that airs during a space shuttle launch or ticker-tape parade, but CNN will still sell it at a premium.

And of course, the network is green-lighting more programming that will be even easier to sell—Morgan Spurlock’s Inside Man, its new weekend shows with Anthony Bourdain and Rachel Nichols, and even some documentary films picked up at Sundance this year.

Indeed, the whole attitude at the cable news network has changed since the year began. More than one person at the network has said that CNN has a firmer sense of purpose with new president Jeff Zucker in charge, and D’Alba agrees with them. “Jeff has a really strong track record in the news business,” he enthused. “We’re very excited about where we are a few weeks into his leadership.”

Per SNL Kagan estimates, the CNN flagship in 2012 took in $322.5 million in ad sales revenue, down 7 percent from the prior-year total of $347.8 million. With an average carriage fee of 57 cents per subscriber per month, CNN last year raked in $685.4 million in affiliate revenue.

UPDATE: And the ratings are in, and you can snark all you want, but 1.20 million viewers in total day is nothing to sneeze at, putting CNN closer to cable news juggernaut Fox News Channel than it's been in quite a while (Fox drew 1.30 million). And when the ship docked, between 10 and 11 p.m., CNN pulled in more demo numbers than both FNC and MSNBC put together (hat tip to our friend Alex Weprin over at TVNewser).