CNN’s Struggles Continue, Even on Election Night

By Andrew Gauthier 


Election, 2008 was a sweeping success for CNN while election, 2009 was a night to forget for the struggling cable new network. In 2008, CNN rode the wave of intense public interest in the presidential election as an average of 12.3 million viewers tuned in to the network’s coverage of the election of Barack Obama. Not only did CNN have the highest rated election night programming on cable, it also beat NBC and CBS.

Flash forward one year and the story is very different. On election night this year, CNN placed fourth in total viewers, falling behind its sister network, HLN, as it did throughout October. HLN, which did not even cover the election returns, scored 842,000 viewers to CNN’s 826,000. Fox News saw a big bump in its audience on election night and beat all three of its cable competitors combined in both total viewers (4,043,000) and the A25-54 demographic (1,130,000).

While MSNBC was up 18% for the night over its year-to-date average and Fox News posted a huge 84% gain in viewers, CNN’s audience actually decreased 12%. CNN’s low ratings on election night must be a major concern for a network that has staked its reputation on being the go-to cable destination for big-event coverage. After its fourth place finish in October, a CNN spokesperson provided context for the poor showing, saying that the network’s ratings “reflect the news environment.”

In this off-year election, some have pointed to Republican wins in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections as a factor in Fox News’ success on the night but this thinking overshadows the fact that the 2009 elections were more dramatic than expected with an unexpectedly close race for the New York City mayorship and a relative upset in the New Jersey governor’s race with Chris Christie beating incumbent Jon Corzine, whom President Obama had campaigned for.

“We are not going to try to boost numbers during fallow news periods by running cartoons, as our competitors do,” CNN president Jon Klein told the Los Angeles Times recently. “We’re going to cover the news and we’ll attract an ever more loyal audience as the result of it.” If CNN can’t draw viewers on an election night, it’s not clear where this loyal audience will come from.