CNN’s New Model: CNBC?

By Alex Weprin 

Politico asks a question that has been asked a number of times over the last couple of years: “What’s Wrong at CNN?”

There are a number of familiar refrains, including the fact that MSNBC and Fox News are heavy on primarily partisan politics, which is a more reliable ratings strategy than CNN’s goal of being the place for breaking news. There are also complaints about the network’s editorial strategy, but you see that anytime a network has ratings issues.

Also, the fact that CNN makes $600 million in profits is mentioned, although that includes CNN/US, CNN International, HLN, and every other CNN property, so it isn’t clear how much profit CNN/US generates on its own.

More interesting to me are some comments made by CNN DC bureau chief Sam Feist.

In meetings, Feist has said that people should think of CNN as a premium channel for news, the way CNBC is a premium channel for finance. That thinking benefits CNN because people never judge CNBC based on its ratings, which are very low. But it is also a radical admission for a network that, from its launch in 1980 until 10 years ago, was the leading cable news network on television — and one that the industry may therefore have a hard time taking seriously.

The comparison to CNBC is understandable, but misguided.

CNBC makes a point of saying it does not care about normal viewers. CNBC cares about Wall Street traders and C-level executives, and that’s it. That is where the network makes its money, because those people are incredibly rich and influential. As long as CNN wants to attract “normal” people to its programming, it will never be like CNBC. Niche networks only work if they are hyper-focused on serving that niche, and sell exclusively to that niche. It is very difficult to have it both ways.

Feist argues that CNN is trying to appeal to “independents,” but just because someone identifies as not being affiliated with a political party in a poll, it does not mean they don’t have strong political opinions. Likewise, it isn’t clear how interested non-partisan viewers are in the political minutiae that CNN often covers (who’s ahead in the horse race? insider political strategy, gaffes etc).

CNBC, like most networks, also argues that Nielsen does a bad job at counting its viewers, particularly during the day when many people watch from outside of their homes. That channel is actually taking action, hooking up with Arbitron to try and measure (and eventually sell) out-of-home viewing. So far, CNN has not taken a similar action, even though it probably has many such viewers too.

Update: It turns out that CNN did cut a deal with Arbitron back in 2010, and the network confirms that they are still working with them today. Primarily the Arbitron data is used to educate media buyers on CNN’s out of home reach. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, that out-of-home data is not made available publicly as Nielsen data is, even though it does paint CNN’s ratings picture in a much more positive light.