CNN faces formidable challenges

Prexy's exit leaves questions unanswered

No matter who wins the presidential election in November, CNN is going to wake up the next day and still be CNN.

This represents a problem for the oldest cable-news network, since being CNN has become challenging these past several years. Management turnover hasn’t helped, including the departure of CNN Prez Jonathan Klein two years ago and CNN Worldwide chief Jim Walton’s July announcement that he’ll leave at year’s end.

Whoever inherits the mantle at CNN will face a formidable structural and marketing challenge. Trying to position itself as the hard news, genuinely fair-and-balanced alternative to Fox News Channel on the right and MSNBC on the left doesn’t address the advantage those channels have in possessing showy personalities (Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell) who can bring viewers back for extended stretches, in much the way talkradio does.

CNN, by contrast, more closely mirrors newsradio, where listeners tune in to check news, weather or traffic and scatter just as quickly. It’s a valuable role when there’s a major breaking-news event — and CNN’s international presence still dwarfs competitors — but not so swell on run-of-the-mill news days, forcing the channel to engage in a level of hyperbole that does nothing to buttress its credibility.

As former correspondent Frank Sesno told the Los Angeles Times when Walton announced his transition plans, “CNN’s strength” — that is, hard news — “is also its albatross.”

Nor has CNN helped itself by becoming so enamored with risible gimmickry, from its “Magic Wall” to holograms. As former NBC News anchor John Siegenthaler wrote recently, the network’s presidential debate coverage featuring its Perception Analyzer technology — providing real-time reaction from undecided voters — “crossed the line from seductive to annoying to exhausting. Couldn’t CNN have waited to share till after the debate was over?

“This wasn’t news,” he continued. “This isn’t news. This is pure political entertainment.”

Such missteps and excesses make CNN difficult to defend, even among those who would desperately like to support a plausible middle-of-the-road alternative.

If granted my own Magic Wall (OK, more like a Magic Mirror) that allowed me to conduct interviews in the future, I’d seek out the next head of CNN, whoever that might be. Since such portals stay open for only so long, 10 questions would suffice — the equivalent of those snarky mini-profiles in the New York Times magazine.

That’s all it would take to ascertain whether the new boss possesses a clear view of what CNN needs to do to survive in a politically polarized world, or whether he or she is simply parroting what predecessors have said.

So let’s begin:

Thanks for doing this interview. Doesn’t your challenge boil down to getting people to watch longer? And without becoming partisan, how do you get them to do that?

Can you become “stickier,” to borrow a phrase from prior regimes, without being just plain oily?

The median age for news viewers is in the 60s, meaning roughly half the audience is eligible for Social Security — and thus not particularly attractive to advertisers. Do you still cling to the hope of getting younger people to watch? And if so, how?

How would you compare the Web’s established effect on newspapers with what it’s doing to cable news?

Why is CNN Intl. so superior to the domestic version, and can you learn anything from that?

Do you ever watch “The Daily Show” pieces about CNN? Because you really should — they’re not only entertaining, but quite enlightening about its shortcomings.

Speaking of pop-culture criticism, have you seen “The Newsroom?” And if so, do you think Aaron Sorkin’s critique has a point?

If the next occupant of CNN’s hot seat can’t handle those questions, he or she might want to think twice about taking the job.

Because as CNN’s rivals know, the election might be over come Nov. 7, but in cable news, the campaign never ends.

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