16 Great Marlborough Street
London W1F 7HS
23 January 2007
CNN: Certainly Not News
Dear Mr. Walton,
A confession: I'm a bit of a CNN junkie. When at home in Athens, I usually catch up with news over lunch, and right after dinner. When on the road, it’s usually the last thing I watch on TV. I got to it before the first Gulf War. In those years, it was fresh, innovative, and new.
But then Ted Turner sold out, and Time Warner bought the network, and ever since then it’s been a long downhill slide. Don’t get me wrong: your anchor line-up is still the most fascinating in the business. [Richard Quest? Where did you find this guy?] And it’s still one of the most accessible networks, available on terrestrial channels in most European countries, and satellite channels in Central & Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia. You've got real world-wide coverage, great technology and a strong brand name.
The only problem is, CNN today is all about entertainment, not news. And of the entertainment part, 50% of this is pure narcissism: promoting CNN, and nothing else.
What do you need to do to get back on track, regain credibility with your international audience, and regain your ratings?
Cut the Crap
Golfing Minute, Mainsail, the Screening Room, the Art of Life, Inside Africa, iReport, International Correspondents, Business Traveller, Paging Dr. Gupta, Inside the Middle East, Your World Today, etc. may be lucrative, sponsorship vehicles or vanity programmes, but we don’t care. The only thing that should be kept is standard, plain-vanilla news: Politics, business, current affairs, the economy. Keep the rest on your website, or on the Disney Channel.
End the Weather
Get off this perverse fascination with weather. It seems like every time an anchor needs to take a piss, you put on 5 minutes of weather. Hello? The weather is not news, unless there’s a flood or a hurricane. Didn’t they teach this in journalist school?
Stop the Narcissism
We are sick of Wolf Blitzer going on about “The best political team in business.” We are tired of the constant self-promotion. Your network is not the news.
Tell your anchors to stop smiling and bobbing their heads inanely, especially when they’re reporting human tragedies. Colleen Edwards looks happier than a goose on Prozac, and more power to her, but you shouldn’t be smiling when you’re reporting a car bomb in Baghdad.
Cut Advertising, or be more Selective
Honestly speaking, your advertising stinks. The Artoc Group? The Azerbaijani Tourism Authority? Do you honestly think we care? And stop advertising yourselves all the time. It's pathetic.
Focus on News, Not Glamour
Guys, what happens at Davos is not news. We don’t care, and if we do, we’ll check their website.
Focus on Content, not Style
We’re in the middle of the US primary season, and CNN hasn’t said a single word about the platform of the candidates running for office. Instead, it’s all about appearances: who fell asleep, who burped, who farted, who said what about Martin Luther King. Hello? You call this journalism? I call it a waste of my time and an insult to my intelligence. Why spend so much money on election coverage when you don’t cover the issues? Don't be surprised that CNN is losing ratings.
Retire Larry King
I admire that old goat as much as the next person, but honestly speaking, I’m living in Europe, and I don’t care about Paula Abdul’s career or OJ’s stamp collection or who won American Idol. I still can't get over Larry’s interview of Poppy Bush, who announced that Prescott had gone “straight to heaven”, while Dorothy Bush promoted her hagiography. Wake up, please. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
Stop Repeating Yourselves
Repeating the headlines during your business programmes is not news. You need enough news content to full in a two-hour news cycle. You shouldn’t be airing each recorded piece more than 4 times every 24-hours, and certainly not on each prime time broadcast, unless it’s shocking, sit-up-in-your-seats footage.
The New News Programme
Keep in Simple: Here’s a simple, recession-proof programme:
1. The standard segment should be 12 minutes of news; two minutes of advertising. The sequence should be two 12-minute segments of politics and current affairs; followed by one or two 12-minute segments of business and economy
2. Only four types of news programmes: Headline News, Business News, Election Coverage, Special Features. That's it!
3. Weather: 2 minutes every hour. Sport: 4 minutes every hour. No more!
Keeping it simple will also allow you, forgive me for saying this, to get rid of at least half your anchors, saving a lot of money and removing all this white noise from your programming. Focus on your core mission: reporting world news objectively, comprehensively and up-to-the-minute.
1. Get Todd Benjamin to trim his eyebrows: he’s always been the Dirty Harry of business news, but now we can't see his eyes anymore.
2. Get Adrian Finnigan out of the pub and into bed by 22:00 every night: his face is getting more pale and pinched with each broadcast.
3. Retire Ralitsa Vassileva, Brent Sadler, Fionoula Sweeney, and some other old warhorses: they’ve served honourably, dealt with their internal demons and need to get off the air.
I hope this helps. I'm still a captive audience, but if anything else better comes along, you'll lose me in a flash.