CNN's Secret Formula: Boring + Non-Partisan + Low Ratings = $$$$

Fox News' Glenn Beck just demonstrated he has the clout to make tens of thousands come to see him in Washington; MSNBC's Ed Schultz recently made headlines for allegedly saying ""I'm going to torch this [bleep]ing place," because he felt the network wasn't giving him enough promo. They're controversial! Exciting!

Meanwhile, CNN is finding that boring sells -- at least for now. According to Vanity Fair, the dull, non-partisan cable net made $500 million in profit last year, and this quarter is expected to be even more profitable.

So how does CNN do it? The answer may be obvious: it succeeds by being middle-of-the-road and not taking a partisan view. Advertisers like that. Of course, in this day and age, that means no one watches. As one small example, per Nielsen, on last Friday the network had 395,000 viewers in primetime, as compared with Fox News' 1,415,000, and MSNBC's 646,000. As has become common, even its allegedly lesser sibling HLN had more viewers, with 414,000. That's pitiful, and it's bound to get worse after the network retires Larry King, who is expected to leave his long-time cable home in the fall. (Even if Piers Morgan -- he of America's Got Talent -- does take the reins, viewership will go down because it's far harder to start a new viewing habit than it is to break an old one. If Morgan succeeds, it will take awhile.)

So where does this leave CNN? As VF points out, it may well mean that president Jon Klein will at some point lose his job, especially if his plan to have disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer helm the 8 p.m. hour doesn't work. My own thinking is that even if a nice pile of money is a wonderful distraction, it should, at the very least, make Time Warner honchos wonder how much better the network might perform financially if it had more viewers. On the flip side, though, at a time where network news operations are withering, there's something to be said for being an AP-like provider of basic news. As the VF story says: "In the end, there will be only one provider of boring news --- that's CNN's hope."

Among other things, media organizations that buy CNN's feed can provide it revenue even if advertisers go away; if what they want is straight down the middle, that's what they'll get in using CNN content. One does have to wonder about the advertisers though. It's hard to picture a day when they will flock to Fox News or MSNBC -- advertisers generally don't like entering political debate. It's hard, though, to see why a fair number of advertisers still feel a need to buy the cable news category at all. In today's fragmented media landscape, no one is completely unreachable -- so why try to reach them in a place they aren't watching?

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