CNN looks to MTV for innovation

“Crossfire” may be a ways off from giving “Total Request Live” a run for its money, but increasingly, the two cablers are going after the same aud.

If the trend toward youth-targeted news programming continues, soon the hip crowd may be wanting their CNN instead of their MTV.

The events of Sept. 11 reminded newsies that young people would tune in if the news was relevant to their lives.

For fourth quarter 2001, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and Headline News all saw huge increases in viewership among the key news demo of adults 25-54 compared to the previous year.

The only question now is: How do you keep the under 40-crew tuned in once the breaking news has died down?

CNN has gone so far as to hire two MTV News personalities, Serena Altschul and Jason Bellini, who will also continue to report for the music cabler.

“We’re using younger commentators across the network,” says CNN News Group chairman-CEO Walter Isaacson. “You’ll see more younger hires, but we’re not hiring just based on age. That’s not the way to attract younger viewers.”

Maybe not, but by aggressively courting youth, CNN is, no doubt, hoping to get a leg up on the competish, specifically Fox News which surpassed the veteran newsie in total viewers and adults 25-54 for the first time ever in January.

But newsies are finding that featuring youthful faces on-air is not necessarily enough to boost demos.

“It’s not about the age of the talent as much as their appeal. Just because someone is over 50, it doesn’t mean they won’t draw in viewers between the ages of 25-54,” says Tim Spengler, exec VP, director of national broadcast, Initiative Media North America.

“I don’t think the public watches Bill O’Reilly and thinks ‘he’s old.’ Because he does well, you forget his age.”

Still, CNN isn’t the only newsie in search of the fountain of youth these days.

At last month’s Television Critics Assn. Tour in Pasadena, Calif., MSNBC prexy and general manager Erik Sorenson chided the press for reporting on household ratings rather than key demos.

“When our advertising people sell our product, they sell to 25- to 54-year-olds,” Sorenson said. “There’s not an advertiser in America, except maybe Viagra, who shoots for the 55-plus crowd.”

Of course, journos have been griping about the graying of the news for decades.

“It is an issue and it’s been an issue ever since I’ve been in this job,” says CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward.

The tricky part is attracting young viewers without alienating the core news audience.

“We are not going to mindlessly pander to young people in an attempt to chase viewers who aren’t going to watch a traditional newscast anyway,” Heyward adds.

Some previous attempts at luring the MTV crowd to news programming have foundered.

CNN is expected to axe “Take 5,” its young-pundits talkshow after it failed to attract a following.

And critics accused ABC News of compromising its integrity in order to woo young viewers when it assigned Leonardo DiCaprio to interview then-President Clinton on the environment.

“You get into trouble when you do something that’s inauthentic and artificially say ‘let’s figure out what the kids want to see,’ ” Heyward says. “The subject matter and the style can be different, but it can’t just be a gimmicky, superficial attempt to tap into what’s seen as a youthful sensibility.”

To lower its median age, CBS News has recently taken advantage of its Viacom siblings to target younger viewers via co-productions with MTV and VH1.

The Eye’s news division is also producing a daily news program for sister net BET. In addition, CBS is talking with UPN about ways to create news programming for the youthful weblet.

It could just be a matter of time before youngsters tune in to the news.

“As you get older, you have more of a stake in the world around you,” Heyward says. “It’s not just that older people are sitting around with nothing to do, so they watch the news.”

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