CNN has learned that there’s nothing wrong with a little attitude.
In just six months, the network’s new 9 p.m. program, “Cuomo Prime Time,” has become the most-watched show on the AT&T-owned cable-news network. Anchor Chris Cuomo’s show has surpassed colleague Anderson Cooper’s 8 p.m. program in that distinction, and helped CNN gain more notice in cable-news’ toughest time slot, where Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow draw some of the medium’s biggest audiences.
Cuomo is not doing it with the type of talk that has worked for CNN in the past. The host isn’t one for the light banter that time-slot predecessors Larry King and Piers Morgan used at 9 p.m. Cuomo likes a good verbal sparring.
“It’s about the debate,” says Melanie Buck, the show’s executive producer, in an interview. “It’s about the pushing.”
Each night, Cuomo urges his viewers to come along with him on a quest for the facts at the root of the daily news cycle. “Let’s get after it!” he says to them.
He’s not trumping the competition. “Hannity” was the most-watched cable-news show in November, drawing 3,026,000 viewers at 9 p.m., and 571,000 in the 25 to 54 demo that advertisers covet. His program was also the most-watched show at 9 p.m. in all of cable at that time. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow snared 2.9 million and 525,000 in the demo.
But Cuomo’s numbers last month – 1,288,000 overall viewers and 381,000 in the demo – have improved CNN’s performance in the time slot. His overall viewership in November was up 25% in time slot compared to last year, while his audience in the key demo was up 2% in the period. On two nights last week, Cuomo’s audience among the 25-to-54 crowd was more than Hannity’s (one of those broadcasts was classified as a Hannity special).
The show may be lending a boost to CNN’s 10 p.m. hour, hosted by Don Lemon. That show, “CNN Tonight,” notched a 34% increase in viewers overall and a 15% increase among the 25-to-54 audience.
CNN has been encouraged by viewer response. “It normally is not easy” to get viewership increases, says Buck. “You don’t always get that sort of response that quickly.”
Some advertisers, meanwhile, are specifically attaching themselves to Cuomo’s show on CNN and another he hosts on sister outlet HLN. Since “Cuomo Prime Time” launched CNN parent Turner has lured new and expanded ad business to the network, according to a spokesperson for Turner’s ad-sales division.
No one in the TV-news business expects Cuomo’s audience to surpass that of his rivals any time soon. But the traction he has gained on CNN in a short period of time must give executives confidence in their choice – which is not in keeping with the network’s programming history. CNN’s 9 p.m. hour was for years an easy view. Larry King would hold forth with celebrities and newsmakers from all walks of life. Cuomo grills his guests. King barely singed them. When Piers Morgan succeeded King, viewers saw a mix of celebrity interviews and news takes.
Cuomo lends a pugnacious tone to the hour. He likes to debate his guests, often doing one-on-one segments with newsmakers or quizzing two people from opposing sides of an issue. He calls visitors to his show, “my brother.” Even his field reporting takes two sides of an issue into account. Last week. Cuomo visited migrant camps in Mexico set up close to the U.S. border. But he also interviewed U.S. border authorities as well to get their view on the situation.
Cuomo is less focused on beating rivals, says Buck, and more interested in his own program. “Those shows have been on for a number of years , and as Chris likes to say, people retreat to their corners in partisan times,” she says.”We are not telling people one side what they want to hear.”
Producers continue to tweak the show, says Buck. Gone is a segment in which Cuomo asked viewers to tell him what he was getting wrong. Another segment in which Cuomo illustrated concepts for the audience on a whiteboard has been used less frequently. Cuomo has found success with a “Closing Argument” – which he writes himself – where he talks about a topic that matters to him. “We have noticed that, ratings-wise, people are responding. Online, we get a ton of views on those. Anecdotally, in an airport, we have had more than one person come up to say, ‘We love the Closing Argument,’” says Buck. “That has really resonated with people.”
Cuomo’s show will likely continue to evolve, says the producer. “Chris and I are very focused on what works and what doesn’t. As soon as we see something that maybe isn’t resonating as much, we will tweak it,” she says. “I would be surprised if this is the exact show” viewers will see in a year.