CNN hopes it’s finally hit upon a way to solve a long-vexing puzzle: What should it be airing at 9 p.m.? The solution requires the network to fit together many pieces.
Starting this week, the Warner Bros. Discovery-backed news outlet will fill the hour with a range of different special reports, all under the rubric of “CNN Primetime.” Future 9 p.m. hours could include one-on-one interviews with newsmakers; town halls that put government officials in direct contact with the people affected by policy decisions; and other programs that feature surprising “gets” and scoops. The programming gambit backs away from the tried-and-true practice of relying on a single anchor or opinion host in the time slot, home to Sean Hannity, Alex Wagner and Rachel Maddow, and banks instead on creative ways of analyzing the news cycle.
CNN announced earlier Monday that anchor Laura Coates would on Wednesday at 9 p.m. gather defense and prosecution analysts and criminal trial veterans to examine the much-scrutinized Murdaugh double murder. On Thursday, anchor Sara Sidner will host what is billed as “a CNN Primetime event” that features White House correspondent Arlette Saenz interviewing First Lady Dr. Jill Biden during her visit to Africa. The First Lady is expected to address criticisms related to President Biden’s age in his potential quest for re-election. Meanwhile, Jake Tapper is expected to interview Bill Maher — the comedian who hosts “Real Time” for CNN corporate sibling HBO — on Tuesday night at 9 p.m.
Cable-news networks have for years spent the bulk of their daytime schedules on traditional news shows, then moved on to analysis and hot talk in primetime. CNN executives, according to a person familiar with the matter, want to experiment with other models. Warner Bros. Discovery has articulated a plan that calls for CNN “to be the place for fact based reporting and thoughtful discourse,” said David Zaslav, CEO of the media conglomerate, in remarks made last week to investors. “We must get it right,” he said, adding: “Nowhere is this more important in my view.”
The challenge: Straight news programming has in recent years not generated the viewership big cable networks need to outpace their competitors. Fox News Channel, which relies on a block of opinion and talk programs that stretch from 7 p.m. to midnight, regularly lures bigger crowds than either CNN or MSNBC. MSNBC also relies heavily on opinion shows that take up much of its evening grid.
CNN has long built 9 p.m. around a particular name, burnishing Larry King and his celebrity interviews for years, then using a similar concept built around Piers Morgan. Under previous chief Jeff Zucker, CNN gave the hour to the correspondent Chris Cuomo. That anchor’s brash style proved winning for CNN, garnering some of the network’s biggest audiences. But CNN has rotated personnel in the slot since parting ways with Cuomo in late 2021, after details surfaced about the assistance he provided his brother, then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, when he faced claims of sexual harassment. Since that time, CNN has tried hosts including Tapper and Michael Smerconish, among others, and asked 8 p.m. mainstay Anderson Cooper at times to take on a double shift.
One of the advantages of the current “CNN Primetime” format is that it leaves things open to more tinkering. CNN could offer other new concepts at 9 p.m. in weeks to come. Another idea under consideration is special primetime editions of regular shows on the schedule that could feature those programs’ anchors with big scoops or interviews, according to the person familiar with the matter.
And CNN has in recent weeks considered the idea of bringing talent not currently on its roster to host occasional or semi-regular hours. CNN CEO Chris Licht has been talking to people both under the Warner Bros. Discovery umbrella and outside of It. Among the names that have surfaced in recent press reports are Gayle King of CBS News — who worked on a show Licht once led — and Charles Barkley, who recently extended his deal with Warner Bros. Discovery’s sports division.
Executives hope the new 9 p.m. programs will make their own news. CNN held two town hall events at 9 p.m. last week and found that one on the Ukraine allowed Ukrainian soldiers fighting on the front lines against Russia to ask US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on live TV when troops could expect additional resources in the war. The network could use such moments for marketing and promotional purposes.
It’s no secret that Licht sees a chance to harness CNN’s newsgathering resources to create compelling live moments. CNN is set to unveil a daytime concept soon that aims to emulate the feel the network has when it covers a big, breaking-news event such as Election Night. But some employees are concerned the new primetime specials will require more manpower, not less, according to one person familiar with internal sentiment, in an era when Warner Bros. Discovery has cut personnel.
Primetime shows often deliver some of TV’s highest ad prices, which is why executives can’t continue to let the hour run on autopilot. And yet, bigger news crowds have begun to surface at non-traditional times. At Fox News, “The Five,” a panel show that runs at 5 p.m., was that network’s most-watched program in January, while Ari Melber’s “The Beat,” which airs at 6 p.m., was MSNBC’s most watched that month. Erin Burnett’s 7 p.m. hour won the biggest crowds for January for CNN. The dynamic provides another puzzle for CNN’s executives to solve.