Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist Howard Kurtz analyzed the downward trend of cable news ratings on his Sunday CNN show "Reliable Sources," with a particular focus on CNN's woes.
CNN has experienced an onslaught of problematic news in recent months, hitting record low ratings among total viewers and in the key 25-54 age demographic. In April, the network had its lowest rated month in more than a decade. In May, the network hit a 20-year low for total viewers in prime time programming hours. On Friday, the New York Post reported that Time Warner executives were considering replacing CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton.
Kurtz wondered if what he called the "dull political season" could be held responsible for cable news networks' declining ratings. "Fox News is down 250,000 viewers in primetime since January, but from a much higher base of almost 2 million viewers," Kurtz said. "MSNBC, in second place down 130,000 viewers in primetime. CNN has been hardest hit, down 450,000 viewers in those primetime hours."
Kurtz also mentioned that cable news networks are competing with the Internet, social media, and mobile applications. "In a broader sense," Kurtz asked. "Is that impacting [cable ratings]?"
The Washington Post's Paul Farhi described the overall trend facing television networks. "All television is declining," he said. "All ratings for most shows, start with 'American Idol,' are in decline. Cable networks are in the middle of a trend that has been going down...since 2007-2008, when there was a big spike with Obama and Clinton." He later added, "Cable news networks are in the same position as newspapers."
After establishing that all cable news networks faced ratings troubles of varying degrees, Kurtz brought up CNN's particular situation. "It's no secret that CNN's ratings have suffered the most even though all three are down," Kurtz said. "And I respect CNN for trying to be a straight news channel during a time when it's certainly easier, perhaps cheaper, to go the partisan, opinionated route that MSNBC has done following the lead of Fox News."
Kurtz added, "But what CNN executives say is that 'This right now is a seasonable blip...and that CNN admittedly is most tied to the news cycle,' in other words CNN does the best when there's a big breaking story either internationally or here at home."
"But cable networks have figured out that you can't rely on the news cycle," Farhi said. "And partisanship by MSNBC and FOX has been the strategy. CNN's strategy has been to play it down the middle more, and if it went more partisan, it would be dividing a market that is already occupied by a player as well. So it's not necessarily a good strategy to go partisan. They've got their market niche. The problem is, if the news doesn't cooperate, you're not going to get the viewers."
On the topic of partisan news, former PBS 'NewsHour' correspondent Terrance Smith brought up the coverage of the Wisconsin recall election. "Fox and MSNBC gave you a lot of opinion, I would say even advocacy of their respective opinions," he said.
"It was like watching two parallel universes," Kurtz said.