Analysis: CNN relies on hard news to draw viewers, but Joe Scarborough predicts his audience will return - and soon
When the Time Warner-owned outlet launched its latest attempt to do battle with “Today,” “CBS This Morning” and other programs aimed at informing the wake-up crowd, CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker billed the effort as a showcase for a new generation of morning-show hosts: former “Good Morning America” anchor Chris Cuomo; savvy Beltway correspondent Kate Bolduan; and popular Los Angeles broadcaster Michaela Pereira. Behind the scenes, the network told advertisers “New Day” would be more like ABC’s “GMA,” minus the soft stuff.
Yet the show hasn’t exactly taken off in the ratings – until recently. In four of the past six months, CNN’s early-day program trumped MSNBC’s well-regarded “Morning Joe” in the audience most preferred by advertisers in news programming, viewers between the ages of 25 and 54. In March, “New Day” topped “Morning Joe” by 7% in that viewership; in April, it was ahead of “Joe” by 13%. In July, “New Day’s” 25-to-54 audience was 18% greater than its MSNBC rival. And in August, the lead widened to 66%. Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” draws more viewers than either program.
“It’s really good to have an all-news show, about news and not about opinion or rants,” says Jim Murphy, senior executive producer of CNN’s morning block.
At stake is a battle for some of TV’s wealthiest and best-educated viewers. It’s well known that “Morning Joe” appeals to people in higher incomes and with better educations who enjoy the show’s brew of analysis, political discussions, erudite panel members and longer-than-usual segments. In a July interview with Variety, however, Cuomo said “New Day” was “significantly challenging ‘Morning Joe’ for the mandate of having the smartest show on cable television, and I want that mantle.”
The CNN program captures a slightly greater amount of ad dollars than “Morning Joe,” according to data from ad-spending tracker Kantar. In 2013, “New Day” won nearly $29.2 million, Kantar said, compared to $21.9 million for “Morning Joe.” In the first quarter of 2014, “New Day” notched nearly $14.2 million, while “Joe” won $7.9 million. CNN has long been able to command premium rates, the result of years of portraying itself as a high-quality news service. In the most recent “upfront” market, however, ad buyers pushed back against the network’s pricing in the wake of decisions to load its schedule with more documentaries and non-fiction programs.
“New Day” is supposed to add an element of stability to CNN’s early-day schedule. For years, the network readily tinkered with the anchor lineup on “American Morning,” swapping out Anderson Cooper for Bill Hemmer or replacing Miles O’Brien and Soledad O’Brien with Kiran Chetry and John Roberts, or having Carol Costello join and leave the program at various times. A replacement program, “Starting Point,” failed to gain much traction. While “New Day” isn’t the morning’s most-watched program, it has helped the network make gains among audience in the time slot.
“New Day” has placed an emphasis on having its anchors on location during big, breaking stories, says Murphy, including having Cuomo travel as far as the Ukraine and the Netherlands in an attempt to follow the bodies of victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 317, or to Ferguson, Missouri, in an effort to relay the palpable tension present in that small city in August. Earlier this year, Bolduan traveled to Kuala Lampur and Australia as part of coverage of the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
And the show has since its June 2013 launch tweaked its formula, said Murphy, realizing that viewers who came to “New Day”wanted hard news immediately. “You’ve got to be telling me the big stuff when it comes to you,” is how Murphy interprets the needs of the show’s viewers. “That has helped us focus really tightly to take the biggest stories of the day and break them down in different ways at different times,” he says.
At MSNBC, the view is that the “New Day” ratings simply reflect an old truism in cable news: CNN tends to see ratings rise when big, breaking news stories command attention, and the recent weeks have been filled with crises in Ukraine and Gaza and Ferguson. “CNN does very well when the world is blowing up,” says Joe Scarborough, the co-host of “Morning Joe.” When staffers ask him about ratings, he says, “I just tell everybody to keep doing the show you’re doing. When locusts stop descending from the heavens, we will start beating them again.”
With that said, Scarborough anticipates that he and co-host Mika Brzezinski will begin traveling more frequently to places where news breaks out, leaving Willie Geist, Mike Barnicle or other members of the show’s regular panel to manage things at the studio while the pair hold forth. “We are going to be encouraging the network to send us out on the road a lot more in the future when big events start happening,” he says, noting that both he and Brzezkinski feel re-energized after carving out some time away from the program in August. The pair has traveled during election coverage, he says, and will do so again, but in future weeks will try to move when breaking news draws focus to a particular locale or region.
The battle looks likely to continue into the autumn, when political elections will drive headlines and both networks will try to use coverage to draw viewers.
CNN will likely have to contend with a maternity leave for Bolduan, who is expected to give birth to her first child in October. “We have been so busy,” says Murphy, that there has been little discussion about how to fill her seat when she takes time away from the program. Meanwhile, Scarborough feels “Morning Joe” should continue as is: “We don’t look at cameras. We don’t play to the TV. We just talk to each other,” he says. When viewers crave more analysis than they do information, he anticipates a revival in the show’s numbers.
Picking the ultimate winner may be difficult, suggests Brian Hughes, senior vice president and head of audience analysis at ad-researcher Magna Global. “They target similar audience, but I’m sure the tone of the show and its personalities are a major consideration,” he says. “There is so much editorializing on cable news now that the desire for information is not the only reason people watch.”