CNN’s Prime-Time Experiment Is Off to a Slow Start

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Viewership is down successful the aboriginal going of CNN’s caller 9 p.m. programming strategy, arsenic the web tries to reinvent itself.

Chris Licht speaks from a signifier    with a ample  reddish  CNN logo down  him.
Chris Licht, CNN’s main executive, has called “CNN Primetime” a mode to inject “fresh and unsocial perspectives to the news.” Credit...Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Warner Bros. Discovery

Michael M. GrynbaumJohn Koblin

March 17, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET

CNN’s caller chairman, Chris Licht, debuted a caller experimentation past period to revive his network’s flagging prime-time ratings, betting that viewers would tune successful for a premix of exclusive interviews and specials dedicated to hot-button topics similar fentanyl maltreatment and the warfare successful Ukraine.

Viewers person had different ideas.

Since Mr. Licht’s 9 p.m. experiment, “CNN Primetime,” began airing respective times a week connected Feb. 22, viewership has fallen beneath what the web was drafting successful the clip slot conscionable a fewer months ago.

At 9 p.m. connected March 8, much Americans watched “Homicide Hunter: The Man With No Face” connected the Investigation Discovery cablegram web than CNN’s exclusive interrogation with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Two days earlier, an day broadcast of “Ancient Aliens” connected the History Channel drew a bigger assemblage than a 9 p.m. interrogation with the archetypal lady, Jill Biden.

Last week, erstwhile the web aired the Biden and Zelensky interviews, arsenic good arsenic a municipality hallway with Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, CNN delivered its fourth-lowest 9 p.m. play ratings successful 24 years.

CNN has had a rocky tally since Mr. Licht, a erstwhile morning-show and late-night producer, was named to the occupation astir a twelvemonth ago. The web downsized its staff, jettisoned a caller streaming transmission and faced an uproar implicit sexist remarks by the anchor Don Lemon.

Mr. Licht has retained the steadfast enactment of his boss, David Zaslav, the main enforcement of Warner Bros. Discovery, which acquired CNN past year. On a sojourn to CNN’s Manhattan offices connected Tuesday, Mr. Zaslav delivered a full-throated endorsement of Mr. Licht’s imaginativeness for the network, urging the unit to effort retired caller ideas — “ratings beryllium damned.”

“We’re trying to fig retired what is the champion CNN,” Mr. Zaslav said, according to a transcript of his remarks obtained by The New York Times. “What are the stories we should beryllium telling? What’s the close balance?”

“Let’s get a batch incorrect successful the adjacent year,” helium added.

A CNN spokesperson said connected Thursday: “We’ve been openly experimenting with a assortment of programming directions implicit the past fewer weeks. Without an established format, cadence oregon promotion for that hour, the web has focused exclusively connected producing astute and meaningful contented — not connected ratings.”

CNN has not deployed a selling effort to showcase these 9 p.m. specials, and it is imaginable the web could make an assemblage successful the clip slot arsenic much viewers go alert of the caller concept.

Still, connection of CNN’s dwindling audiences has traveled beyond the cablegram executives who pore implicit Nielsen information reports: At past weekend’s white-tie Gridiron Club meal successful Washington, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken singled retired the web successful his comedic keynote speech.

“According to the impermanent list, determination are 600 attendees present tonight,” Mr. Blinken told the chuckling crowd. “CNN would termination for an assemblage similar that.”

Cable quality is simply a onshore of habit: Set-in-their-ways viewers, whose median property stretches into the precocious 60s, tune successful expecting to spot the aforesaid anchor nighttime aft night. The conception of devoting 9 p.m. to a fluctuating premix of hosts and topics — alternatively than a dedicated anchor with a large on-air property — was ever going to beryllium a gamble.


Mr. Licht astatine CNN offices successful Manhattan. The mean assemblage for “CNN Primetime,” astatine 9, is 30 percent smaller than the preceding hour’s.Credit...Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Mr. Licht pitched “CNN Primetime” arsenic an accidental to inject “fresh and unsocial perspectives to the news,” and his thought has travel erstwhile immoderate prime-time quality shows person started falling down day fare. He has sought the services of hosts similar the erstwhile hoops prima Charles Barkley and the “CBS Mornings” anchor Gayle King.

But without a regular anchor successful place, “CNN Primetime” specials are often announced conscionable days, oregon adjacent hours, earlier they air. Recent installments person included a municipality hallway with citizens of East Palestine, Ohio, discussing the caller bid disaster; a look astatine the Alex Murdaugh execution trial; and, connected Wednesday, an introspection of “the authorities of banking successful America” successful airy of the Silicon Valley Bank collapse.

Since past week, Anderson Cooper’s long-running 8 p.m. programme attracted an mean assemblage of 584,000 viewers. The 9 p.m. specials averaged conscionable 407,000, a quality of 30 percent. On respective occasions, CNN’s strait-laced daytime shows, airing astatine off-hours similar noon and 1 p.m., garnered bigger audiences than the caller nighttime offerings. The lone “CNN Primetime” peculiar that exceeded the viewership of its 8 p.m. lead-in was an interrogation with the comedian Bill Maher.

Mr. Licht and Mr. Zaslav stock a presumption of CNN arsenic a captious instauration successful American beingness that somewhat mislaid its mode nether its past president, Jeff Zucker, who encouraged his anchors to follow confrontational stances toward the Trump administration. As Mr. Licht has gone astir remaking CNN, helium has championed the benignant of straight-ahead reporting that helium believes was de-emphasized successful favour of much partisan punditry.

“We could person chosen arsenic an enactment to go an advocacy network,” Mr. Zaslav said successful his remarks connected Tuesday. “And we could astir apt marque much wealth doing it. And, you know, determination was a play of clip wherever immoderate of that strategy was deployed here.”

Whether there’s an assemblage for the caller attack — astatine least, an assemblage sizable capable to make the immense profits that Mr. Zucker reaped during his clip atop CNN — remains an unfastened question successful a profoundly polarized era.

Mr. Zaslav says helium has nary qualms. “Chris and I walk an atrocious batch of clip together, and I’m highly encouraged by wherever we are,” helium said.

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