THE BLOG

What's Killing CNN? Live Television

08/16/2010 03:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The media pages have been alive in recent months with prognostications about the impending death of CNN, and multiple diagnoses about what's causing its demise.

Most recently, Vanity Fair's Michael Wolff critiqued the leadership, or lack thereof, by the head of CNN/US, Jon Klein - and his efforts to shake-up CNN's primetime line-up as both symptom and treatment of the illness.

Others, including Politico and the New York Times' Ross Douthat, have insisted that because of its impartial editorial line, CNN is losing viewers to the left leaning MSNBC or the right leaning Fox. In Politico's words, CNN needs to "get more personality."

Douthat insists that CNN should bring back Crossfire, the debate program which allegedly fell at the hands of Jon Stewart, because viewers like to watch on-air slugfests.

The real diagnosis, however, may be deceptively simple. The sad truth is, CNN no longer reports the news. It merely does "lives" -- an endless stream of anchors or talking-heads, blathering on about the subject du jour.

A 24-hour news channel, you see, is a good thing. Live news, more often than not, just blows.

When I first started looking at the CNN death knells, in April, I spent a day watching coverage of the coal mining disaster in Montcoal, West Virginia, in which there was an on-going search for four trapped miners after a blast killed 25 of their colleagues. (Sadly, all four were eventually found dead.)

CNN's wall-to-wall coverage consisted of live feeds from press conferences; lots of satellite interviews with talking-heads related to the mining industry; the occasional live question-and-answer with a correspondent, standing in a field in West Virginia.

I counted exactly one news package. (And it was a very low-rent one with wallpaper images cobbled together from feeds from local broadcasters, with no reporter on the scene.)

Where was the reporting?

In days of yore, say, the mid 00's and the 90's, CNN would send one of its correspondents -- let's say Christiane Amanpour -- with a cameraman and perhaps a producer into a situation, to film events, do interviews and develop visual sequences with people informed about the situation at hand. She would write a script and shoot a piece to camera - placing herself on the scene and elucidating more about the situation. The team would feed an edited "news package" -- a story -- home, to be broadcast.

But where were CNN's news packages on how coal mining communities are coping in a world that's meant to be evolving toward alternative energy? Where's the news package from another mine that shows what a day in the life of a miner is like? Where is the news package about the community pulling together to support one another, or help coming in from other towns?

I'm sorry, but talking heads, Google Earth and computer graphics of mining techniques just don't do it for me. And that's pretty much what CNN's live coverage consisted of.

"Live" can also be blamed for the wholesale decline in the caliber of the discussion.

Most of us remember when Captain "Sully" Sullenberger landed the US Airways jet on the Hudson -- for a certain amount of time, that was extraordinary live news -- something CNN does well.

Then it devolved. As the coverage dragged on, Wolf Blitzer was saying things like, "Of course in an plane crash, you shouldn't stop to get your things from the overheard compartment.... Let's turn now to Person-at-the-Scene."

Person-at-the-Scene: "What's important to remember in an emergency is not to get your things from the overhead compartment... Now let's turn to Air-Disaster Analyst So-and-So" - who repeats the same line about overhead compar -- enough already!

It seems pretty obvious that when you have to spend hour after hour filling up live air, then the quality of the information and analysis you're going to impart is going to become ever more trivial.

And -- paging Jon Klein and Michael Wolff -- when CNN's regular news-programming consists, at times, of anchors reading Twitter out loud, should network execs really be so surprised that no one is tuning in to primetime?

The problem is that the news package I mentioned earlier -- the one from the mine, reported, perhaps, by Christiane Amanpour? That would take all day to shoot and edit, and it'd come to a total of about 2-3 minutes of material. Tops. It's expensive -- far more expensive than having a talking-head babble on camera for the same amount of time.

With her defection from CNN to the Sunday morning circuit for ABC, Christiane Amanpour, I would wager, saw the writing on the wall. The veteran of Bosnia, Somalia, Israel/Palestine, Iran, Rwanda (among other places) would have been able to clearly see that CNN is no longer a place for a correspondent who wants to report news. (And now, rumors abound that Anderson Cooper also has one foot out the door.)

Yes, CNN appears to be dying. But the cure is not to be found in bringing back Crossfire, nor in developing an editorial bias, nor in finding someone provocative enough to drag viewers back to primetime.

The cure lies in blowing off live news coverage -- in order to report the news.

(An earlier version of this piece appeared on TrueSlant. )