CNN is having a banner year in viewership. Not only did the network top all its cable competitors during the last two weeks of political convention coverage, it also averaged higher nightly numbers than ABC, CBS and NBC. As Variety reports in this week’s cover story, under the management of Jeff Zucker, these ratings are part of a broader success story. With breaking news, original series and a focus on the big story of the day, CNN is attracting the largest share of the primetime audience—at 34 percent—in the key demographic of 25-to-54 in 15 years. It’s quickly pulled ahead of MSNBC and continues to close the gap with Fox News (which averages 424,000 viewers in the key demo compared to CNN’s 339,000).
John Martin, the CEO of Turner, which owns CNN, spoke to Variety about the growth and if CNN will eventually pass Fox News.
What’s changed at CNN under Jeff Zucker?
Four years ago, I was CFO of Time Warner. I think it’s fair to say there was pretty broad consensus among investors that the news business was going to be really difficult and increasingly fractionalized. And those winners were going to be those news options that were heavily weighted toward opinion. Under Jeff’s leadership, he’s built an incredible team. A team that feels like they have tremendous responsibility to deliver the news with journalistic integrity in a tireless way. And frankly, given all of what’s been happening in the world, deliver stories in an appropriately sensitive and objective way. I couldn’t be more proud of how the brand has evolved. It’s been nothing short of a spectacular success story for us.
How important has Jeff been to the brand?
Jeff is a fantastic leader. Number one, he’s passionate. Number two, he’s tireless. He demands as much from himself as anybody else. He’s got a great team around him, and he’s created a spirit where everybody feels like they have a say at the table. Frankly, the morale of CNN is so much better today than it was a number of years ago. That’s in part because of Jeff’s direct leadership and in part because the employees feel like they are on a winning team. And Jeff has broadened out the strategy and mission of CNN, not only to be essential and the best in breaking global news, but also making CNN the destination for long-form story telling in the form of original series. A few years ago, a lot of people were questioning if that strategy made sense. I don’t think people are questioning that anymore.
CNN is doing better than MSNBC and closing the gap with Fox News. Do you think CNN can pass Fox News in the ratings?
Yes. It’s a question of when, not if. What CNN is doing is appealing to an increasingly younger audience. I think you’ve got to look at it across multiple platforms. I think even in the not-too-distant future, even in the more traditional model, we’re going to pass Fox. What Jeff has done is brought a lot of diversity to the network that didn’t exist before. You’re seeing diversity on air, diversity of opinion. I think that’s really resonating with audiences that the network didn’t connect with in the past.
Is Turner able to invest more heavily in CNN because of an increase in advertising revenue?
CNN has a journalistic mission and we take that very seriously. In terms of business outcome, CNN is going to have a record year in terms of revenues and profits. CNN benefits principally from a dual revenue stream, which is both advertising and subscription revenues. Subscription revenues over the next several years will grow on a percentage basis of double digits year over year, which I think speaks to the power of the CNN brand. And then, of course, as CNN’s ratings have grown, we have been able to monetize that through increasing investments. We’re increasing our investments not only in content, but in tech and in people. And we’re able to do that and still grow our profits and be confident we’re going to increase our profits in a non-election year like next year. I’m so excited about where the business is, the brand is and where the possibilities are going forward.