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CNN Eyes Primetime Shake-Up: Who’s In and Who’s Out?

TV Analysis: Change is necessary, but it's also likely to be gradual as cable-news network susses through options

Well, now, this is awkward: CNN is casting about for new people and program ideas for its primetime lineup even as it expects staffers currently working in the timeslot to keep at it day after day.

Jeff Zucker, the president of the Time Warner-owned news outlet, has in two separate interviews in recent weeks pronounced 2014 a year of “shake up,” particularly when it comes to primetime, where the network has lagged rival Fox News Channel and fights it out with its other competitor, MSNBC. Ideas on the table, according to people familiar with planning at the network: an emphasis on new programming at 10 and 11 p.m.; a possible half-hour program, potentially featuring Bill Weir, former co-anchor of ABC’s “Nightline”; and, conceivably, moving 7 p.m. host Erin Burnett and 9 p.m. host Piers Morgan into other duties if their programs do not gain more traction. Even Anderson Cooper, who recently signed a new contract to stay at the network, could be placed at the helm of something else during the daypart, according to one of these people.

Of course, all of this is speculative. One person familiar with the network said CNN is likely to experiment with many parts of its on-air lineup in 2014, with primetime seen as a “priority.” While Weir is indeed developing programming, no decision has been made about a concept or where in the schedule it might air, this person said. And while the network is casting about for ideas and possible talent, several of these people said no replacement programming has been lined up for anything currently in primetime.

But that can’t last.

It’s true, CNN’s primetime shows notched ratings gains in 2014. At 7 p.m., “Erin Burnett OutFront” lured an average of 498,000 viewers in 2013, up 10% from 453,000 the previous year, according to Nielsen. T he show secured an average of 159,000 viewers between 25 and 54, the demographic favored by advertisers in news programs, up 15% from 138,000 in 2012. Anderson Cooper’s 8 p.m. program, “AC 360,” rose 18% in total viewers to an average of 648,000 vs. 549,000 in 2012. In the 25-to-54 demo, the show saw a 19% gain to an average of 201,000, compared with an average of 169,000 a year earlier. And “Piers Morgan Live” basically stayed flat with 2012 performance, securing a 1% gain in total viewers, to 597,000 compared with 590,000 a year earlier, and a 2% hike in the 25-to-54 demo, to 173,000 from 170,000.

Getting a rise in the time period is a good signal, but the fact remains CNN’s primetime status needs improvement. In the fourth quarter of 2013, CNN’s primetime lineup showed a significant dip in the ratings, and the gap between its viewership and that of MSNBC and Fox News Channel widened. According to Nielsen data, CNN’s primetime shows captured an average of 477,000 viewers overall in the fourth quarter, compared with an average of about 1.78 million for Fox News Channel and an average of 653,000 for MSNBC. Both of those networks saw ratings rise from the third quarter, while CNN’s quarterly primetime average has fallen since the second quarter of 2013, when the network captured an average of 653,000 viewers.

The network has been tinkering in full view of its audience. Don Lemon hosted a half-hour program at 11 p.m. for a few weeks, and he and Jake Tapper have been filling in for  Burnett while she’s on maternity leave. After giving Cooper a second hour at 10, CNN has in recent weeks shown some of the documentaries, which have gained favor during other times during the week. And then of course, there are the rumors about trying to get Jay Leno to take a latenight perch.

“They need some heavyweights” in the time period, said Billie Gold, vice president and director of buying and programming research at Carat, a media-buying agency that counts General Motors among its clients. Because CNN avoids partisan analysis of the news, she said,the network needs to bring in stronger personalities who will keep viewers interested, even when they aren’t looking to find out the latest on a breaking story. “They do not have a strong voice, and I think that’s their problem.”

Finding those sorts of hosts could take time. Yes, CNN will be shaking things up in 2014. Yet chances are Zucker and his staff will have to move gradually, tugging on different strands of the network’s fabric instead of yanking the carpet from under the people who are standing on it and delivering the news.

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