CNN Head Jim Walton Out at Year’s End

Low ratings precede 30-year news network vet's exit

CNN announced today that Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide, will step down at the end of 2012, until which time he will continue in his current role. The decision is characterized by the network as Walton's own, made with "the support and respect of Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent," who will lead the search for Walton's replacement.

Ratings troubles have dogged CNN for several years, with the network ceding prime time to rivals Fox News Channel and MSNBC and finally hitting historical lows in Q2 of 2012 as the news channel's prime-time numbers dropped to levels not seen in 21 years among both total viewers and the important 25-54-year-old demo. Total day numbers, also important for the network, hit an 11-year low in both demos for the same quarter.

CNN has a vast and expensive newsroom and a very strong international presence, and while earnings have risen under Walton, ratings have fallen. As the network earned a record $500 million in 2009 and increased in single digits from there the next year, CNN U.S. saw its prime-time lineup implode and its then-president, Jonathan Klein, unceremoniously canned in the wake of that controversy.

The network has maintained throughout its ratings difficulties that its first priority is maintaining the integrity of the news—CNN earned three Peabody Awards this year—but that long-standing claim drew criticism when the net misreported one of the most important stories of the year: the Superme Court's ruling on the Affordable Care Act late last month. Corporate sibling HBO's series The Newsroom even dinged CNN for the gaffe on its fictional news anchor Will McAvoy's Twitter account.

Walton has led the company for almost 10 years and worked at CNN for more than 30. In a note to staff, Walton said that he'd been thinking about the move "for some time," and that he would both work out the year and continue to be available after December.

While Walton said that he was "proud of what we have accomplished together over these last 10 years," the executive admitted that "CNN needs new thinking."

"That starts with a new leader who brings a different perspective, different experiences and a new plan," Walton said, "one who will build on our great foundation and will commit to seeing it through."

Kent issued a statement to the press in support of Walton and his decision, saying that Walton had "modernized and globalized our legacy news brand" and praising his business acumen. "I am honored to work alongside him and proud to call him my friend," Kent wrote.

Time Warner chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes also weighed in on Walton's departure, observing that CNN's earning were "in serious decline" when Walton took over the brand in 2003. He pointed out that under Walton's tenure, earnings have tripled and margins have doubled, despite the network's current woes. "I respect him personally and professionally and support the decision he and Phil Kent have reached," Bewkes wrote.

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