CNN: The Axe Has Dropped, But Will the Ratings Rise?

09/28/2010 10:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"The Turner Network ratings have long been slipping", says Variety. "Izzat so?" I ask. CNN's ratings were down to a .4 on its 20th anniversary, and they were still about a .4 on its 30th anniversary. Between those two dates, there were occasional spikes -- Hurricane Katrina, the Obama election, but CNN has, for the most part, been a .4 network for the past 10 years.

From June 2000 to June 2004, CNN was in a continuous state of flux. Leadership and direction changed five times. In 2000, Tom Johnson and Rick Kaplan were waging a bitter in-house battle for the top job. In a last minute attempt to get its house in order, CNN dismissed Kaplan in the midst of the 2000 Presidential election campaign. Johnson, Jim Walton and Eason Jordan formed a triumvirate to govern the company. Then, Gerry Levin, Time Warner's CEO, named former Time magazine managing editor Walter Isaacson as the CEO of CNN. But Isaacson was largely an absentee overlord, preferring to spend his time in New York rather than Atlanta, and in 2003, he quit. Jim Walton was named to succeed him. A year later, Walton brought in a new CNN President, whose background at CBS had been in local news. In 2004, he fired him, brought in Jon Klein, and with Klein came six years of stability and stagnation.

Now, Klein is gone, but he leaves behind him a primetime schedule that he alone both developed and cast within the last six months of his tenure. His successor, Ken Jautz is a CNN veteran, a former AP reporter, and an all around good journalist and good guy, according to people who've worked with him. He told Variety that, "We do have to be more engaging and lively and more fun, frankly... We do have a rating challenge at CNN." But, after all the good things I've heard about Jautz, I recall that he's the guy who hired Glenn Beck for Headline News. Beck boosted HLN ratings, became a national star, and then deserted CNN for more money at FoxNews. He does not appear to be the best hire Jautz ever made.

I'm sure that Jautz would never pick a "Glenn Beck" for CNN's primetime schedule, and he's not going to have a chance to pick anyone for at least a year or two. In a strange case of timing, Walton let the soon-to-be axed Klein cast Eliot Spitzer, Kathleen Parker and Piers Morgan in primetime roles and Jautz will have to turn them into winners. It seems to me beyond strange that a new manager doesn't get to pick his own team, and I wonder if Walton knew beforehand that he was going to dismiss Klein. A month ago, I wrote here that "Something is rotting in Atlanta, and it seems as if the Time Warner brass in New York is paying no attention to it." Maybe Time Warner brass has been paying attention to it, and Jim Walton was merely the messenger.

In any event, Jautz has his work cut out for him. Over the past month, CNN's performance in total day has been just as awful as its performance in primetime. Jautz has twenty four hours of program scheduling to fix, and that's a Herculean task. I still think CNN's been rotting from the head down for the past twenty years, and it's not going to be fixed in a matter of months. But maybe with a CNN veteran in the driver's seat, it will at least have a chance to take off in a new direction. Only then will the ratings rise.