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Focus on CNN reflects a nearsighted view

IN REVIEWING “EMPIRE FALLS,” I hypothesized that the all-star HBO miniseries would likely be “more written about than watched.” Upon further reflection, though, the real prize in that category belongs to another Time Warner property: CNN.

Reams of stories have recently been devoted to the pioneering cable network’s ratings woes and latest executive and on-air changes. The Los Angeles Times alone has featured two major pieces about CNN in the last few months.

That would be fine provided there was evidence TV viewers actually care about what CNN is up (or down) to. Surveying local-market results from the May rating sweeps, however, demonstrates what most cynics doubtless suspected — shallow Angelenos are far more entranced with car chases, Dodgers highlights and homegrown fulminating about Michael Jackson than “The Daily Show”-worthy inanities being delivered by CNN correspondent Rick Sanchez.

THIS ISN’T MEANT to pick on CNN, though watching its “news you can use” reporting on identity theft Monday reminded me how much the network needs to pilfer one of its own. The fact remains that the entire cable news sector receives inordinate attention thanks to newspaper editors’ myopic interest in it, assigning false importance to news/talk channels because they are so conspicuous in newsrooms, where TV sets stay tuned to them throughout the day.

Although this isn’t the first time I’ve made this argument, L.A.’s primetime sweeps numbers — even allowing for some fluctuation due to new Nielsen methodology — nevertheless proved eye opening. CNN averaged a paltry 10,000 viewers in a TV market that reaches 16 million people. For that matter, Fox News Channel registered just 25,000, while MSNBC lagged a few thousand behind CNN.

From 5 to 7 p.m., when top-rated cable programs like “The O’Reilly Factor” play live, those three channels amassed a mere 135,000 viewers, less than half the audience for broadcast news leader KABC. Indeed, Los Angeles’ three network-owned outlets totaled 1.1 million viewers with their 11 p.m. newscasts, nearly doubling CNN’s national average at any given minute in primetime.

Far more people also watched the 10 o’clock newscasts on KTTV, KTLA or KCAL than cable news in L.A. Hell, even KCOP Channel 13 — whose rock ‘n’ roll news alternately aims at prison inmates and the kind of Melrose Avenue poseurs that derive fashion tips from anchor Lauren Sanchez — edged them out.

Somehow, though, the misguided assumption lingers that people are galvanized by CNN, when most jaded Southern Californians feel a stronger connection to veteran personalities like KNBC’s Paul Moyer or KCBS’ Laura Diaz than CNN’s Aaron (Zzzzz) Brown or dreamy Anderson Cooper. That’s especially true in smaller markets, where on-air broadcast talent offers the closest thing to “stars” that, say, local Bakersfield residents are apt to encounter.

FOR A CHANNEL LIKE CNN, this intense media scrutiny represents a double-edged sword. The press eagerly publicizes its new initiatives, but each setback or purge gets analyzed ad nauseam.

It’s worth recognizing, though, that “media bias” doesn’t exclusively apply to charges of liberal imbalance or conservative cheerleading. The term can as easily refer to juicy stories or topics of disproportionate interest to the media, whose competitive zeal contributes to a disconnect between those who cover news and consumers.

This is surely the case with CNN, which, whatever its historical legacy, has become just another exit on the information superhighway — less significant to most viewers than “Nip/Tuck,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” or other programs they look forward to watching.

THE MOST USEFUL news channel I’ve espied lately is NY1, the no-frills New York City operation from Time Warner Cable. Morning anchor Pat Kiernan isn’t exactly flashy — more like near-comatose — but his crisp summary of what’s “In the papers” and the frequently updated traffic/weather provide helpful, time-saving features a harried news junkie could come to love.

There’s nothing sexy about NY1’s approach, but CNN could still learn a thing or two from it, just as those preoccupied with the channel’s every step and misstep should consider the title of Cooper’s program, “Anderson Cooper 360,” which alludes to a full-circle view of the world.

That’s an admirable goal, because whether it’s viewing CNN lately or reading about it, there hasn’t been much well-rounded perspective, and all the angles look pretty obtuse.

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