CNN made a tactical gamble during the just-concluded election process by providing wall-to-wall coverage of the presidential campaigns, effectively overshadowing much of the other breaking news.
So devoted was the original 24-hour cable news channel that, if not for its dedicated reporting on the Wall Street crisis, viewers could have been forgiven for thinking that they had inadvertently turned in to a (slightly) hipper version of C-Span.
The move paid off, as Time Warner's CNN generally got favorable critical reviews, built a buzz among viewers and increased the size of its audience. On Election Night, for instance, CNN had 12.3 million viewers while Fox clocked in with 9 million. CNN even surpassed NBC and CBS in total viewers.
Even so, CNN failed to shove aside News Corp.'s Fox News Channel throughout the year. Fox has consistently been the ratings leader among cable news providers since 2002 (Note: MarketWatch is a unit of News Corp.)
Now, the election is over and life has gone on. The central question is: Can CNN maintain its momentum at a time when the public's interest in politics is likely to wane?
Yes, we should all care about the identity of the next Treasury Secretary or Secretary of State. And we should hang on every utterance of President-elect Barack Obama, of course. But it's inevitable. Despite the gravity of the Cabinet appointments or any other White House initiatives, nothing is likely to seem more exciting or newsy than the outcome of the presidential election.
As a result of the malaise, all-politics-all-the-time CNN could have a hard time keeping the public on the hook in an Obama world.
Sure, CNN could adjust its editorial mission. But if it did, critics, television executives and CNN employees would roll their eyes in mock-dismay at yet another shift in direction. CNN has become infamous in TV circles for the many changes to its broadcasting strategy over the years.
Only a few years ago, I dubbed it the Car-chase News Network because the network aired so much footage of car chases, burning buildings, kidnapping stories and other pulp content. CNN seemed more fixated on using gimmicks as a way to thwart Fox.
CNN has long boasted a stable of smart, plugged-in and poised political correspondents, leading off with John King, a tireless and knowledgeable presence.
But CNN wasn't perfect. Some of its more shrill pundits can sound as annoying as fingernails along a blackboard after a while. But the likes of King, Ed Henry, Jessica Yellin and Dana Bash provided excellent perspectives.
CNN may have to accept that its future lies in the highbrow world of politics, even if viewers would probably secretly prefer to watch burning buildings and car chases.
New Yorker media critic Ken Auletta pointed out: "Cable news networks rarely reach a mass audience, and therefore they seek to find a niche. Each will deny this, but they're spinning like the politicians they cover. Fox's niche is to tilt conservative, and MSNBC's is to tilt liberal. CNN seeks the broader ground between them by claiming to be the true 'fair and balanced' network. Yet they have a populist strain -- think Lou Dobbs -- that contradicts this claim."
Jonathan Klein, who presides over the U.S. portion of CNN's news content, is an energetic and resourceful leader. He took a chance when he positioned CNN's shift to politics and deserves the credit for spearheading its revival at a time when CNN had become irrelevant in the cable news discussion.
Klein has taken pains to put CNN in the middle, between the left-tilting MSNBC and the right-veering Fox News Channel (even though a lot of viewers still regard CNN by its decade-old nickname, the Clinton News Network).
Ultimately, CNN may turn its attention to worrying more about fending off the pesky, noisy MSNBC, nother perennial laggard that became energized during the Obama-McCain sweepstakes, than expecting to catch up to Fox.
"Will CNN be the place the audience repairs for unvarnished news?" the New Yorker's Auletta posited. "Will the heightened interest of the public for political news abate? Only O'Reilly and Olbermann know."
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By Jon Friedman