CNN to Guarantee ‘Away’ Audience

Less a promo reel than a virtual Baedeker’s guide to the world’s most volatile trouble spots, the video component of CNN’s upfront presentation offers a shifting mosaic of place names and crumbled masonry. Here is Anderson Cooper reporting from Port-au-Prince; behind him, the National Cathedral appears to have been turned inside out. There is Christine Amanpour, standing on a Tehran street during the height of the 2009 election protests, a human tide of Mousavi supporters surging around her.

CNN will begin calling on media agencies at the end of this month, screening the video as part of a stripped-down pitch that clocks in at around 38 minutes. The just-the-facts-ma’am approach is designed to emphasize the network’s 24/7 news-gathering operations rather than just prime time, which in turn sets up an offer that could have far-reaching implications—if buyers take the bait.

Greg D’Alba, evp and COO of CNN ad sales, is taking an unprecedented first step, telling buyers he’ll guarantee away-from-home deliveries in this year’s upfront. If CNN gets any takers, it will mark the first time a network will write business based on its viewership in bars, restaurants, hotels and third-party residences.

A glance at CNN’s fourth-quarter deliveries suggests that there’s a good chunk of money to be made in nontraditional venues. According to Arbitron’s ARB-TV service, away-from-home viewing gave CNN a 40 percent lift in the core news demo (adults 25-54), while boosting the network’s delivery of viewers 18-49 by 47 percent. The lift for the younger demo was predictably amplified, as CNN’s overall draw among adults 18-34 grew by 59 percent.

Certainly it’s to CNN’s benefit to steer the conversation away from prime. The network’s struggles in the daypart are well documented, but even in the midst of a particularly robust news cycle, CNN’s linear deliveries have raised a few eyebrows. In a month that witnessed the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, the special election in Massachusetts and President Obama’s first State of the Union Address, CNN fell 34 percent in prime, with an average draw of 843,000 viewers. The news demo was down 37 percent to 259,000, just half that of Fox News Channel.

“We all get the importance and the value of prime time. But we also know that so much of our consumption is on a 24-hour schedule,” D’Alba said, tracing the twin sine waves of Web and away-from-home usage data. (Usage for both media peak at midday.) “The portable people meter data has become so instrumental to our strategy that we will guarantee audience against our out-of-home numbers.”

Prime time may draw the most scrutiny, and there’s no getting around that CNN’s 8 p.m.-11 p.m. roster accounts for its plumpest CPMs. That said, the daypart accounts for just 10 percent of the $1.16 billion in total revenue that CNN hauled in a year ago. “We’re not a news organization that programs for an hour or two every night to get the big ratings,” D’Alba explained. “You can see the real power of CNN when news breaks, when our boots are on the ground and we’re reporting the stories that people need to know about. Journalism matters.”

Which brings us back to away-from-home guarantees and CNN’s yen to start turning PPM-certified eyeballs into cash. Because the ARB-TV numbers aren’t accredited, media buyers may not commit without due diligence. “I’d strongly consider it, but I’d have to get the proper vetting from our research department before I accepted any guarantees,” said Chris Geraci, OMD’s managing director of national broadcast investment.

If getting paid for away-from-home viewing may be an uphill climb, consolidating all the relevant data streams (mobile, Web, away-from-home, TV) promises to be a hike up the north face of a volcano. “It’s tough because there is no uniform metric and nothing’s really been agreed upon,” Geraci added. “For an organization like CNN, which has a better opportunity to grow on other distribution points, there is money being left on the table.”