CNN may be getting ready to take a new swing at fixing its long-running 9 p.m. problem.
CNN is getting ready to launch a new show in that hour called “CNN Primetime,” which is described with a logline that says, “Join CNN’s top anchors for special events and unique conversations about the issues that matter the most.”
Both the show title and the programming descriptions are on display in interactive schedules that subscribers to cable and satellite services can call up to examine programming options. On Thursday, CNN is set to offer a “CNN Town Hall.” Another entry describes a one on one interview between a newsmaker and anchor Don Lemon. A person familiar with the matter says the details were inadvertently uploaded to cable systems and that only the town hall is a go for next week. A launch of “CNN Primetime” may not take place for some time, this person says.
CNN declined to make executives available for comment, and it could not be immediately learned if executives view “CNN Primetime” as something of an experiment or a new and permanent addition to the network’s line-up.
The nine o’clock hour is one of the most fiercely competitive in cable news, but CNN hasn’t had a fixture there since the last regular timeslot inhabitant, Chris Cuomo, was ousted in the wake of revelations he assisted his brother, former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, when he was fighting against claims of sexual harassment. In recent weeks, CNN has relied on early-evening anchors Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett to hold forth in the time slot, adding another 60 minutes to their regular duties. Michael Smerconish and Kasie Hunt have also taken stabs at hosting at 9 p.m.
“CNN Primetime” is supposed to rely less on a single name and more on great storytelling, scoops and surprises, according to one person familiar with the Warner Bros. Discovery-backed cable-news outlet. Viewers will be urged to come for the hour, not a specific talent, this person says.
CNN CEO Chris Licht has, in recent discussions with staffers, suggested that he’s not looking for another traditional news hour to go toe-to-toe with Rachel Maddow and Alex Wagner at MSNBC or Sean Hannity at Fox News Channel. Instead, he and other executives have been mulling the possibility of hiring someone — potentially several people — who might offer perspective or analysis, even “informed opinion.” CNN has already begun using an after-show segment from outspoken HBO host Bill Maher on Friday nights that is typically streamed on YouTube. Licht has also been in talks with a wide variety of different personalities, some of whom already work with Warner Bros. Discovery, who hail from the worlds of sports, health, comedy and lifestyle.
There has even been speculation that the show that might be called “CNN Primetime” will consist of several different segments, creating the feeling of multiple pieces of different programming types contained within a larger whole.
Last year, CNN and anchor Jake Tapper tested a show at 9 p.m., crafting a program that featured an opening monologue and several prominent newsmaker interviews. Laura Coates and Alisyn Camerota then co-anchored two hours between 10 p.m. and midnight, mixing it up with a panel of guests who talked about the issues of the day. Tapper returned to his previous assignment in late afternoon. Camerota and Coates remain at the head of those later hours in a show called “CNN Tonight.”
The launch of the new evening concept comes while CNN is grappling with issues earlier in the day. On Friday, Don Lemon was asked to apologize to staffers on CNN’s regular morning editorial call after remarks he made on Thursday’s “CNN This Morning” about when women are in their “prime” generated pushback and hinted at increasing behind-the-scenes tension at the program, which just launched in November.
CNN could use a boost at night. CNN’s primetime viewership between the ages of 25 and 54 — the demographic most coveted by advertisers — was off 37% in 2022, according to data from Nielsen. The network’s primetime schedule captured an average of 171,000 viewers in that demographic, compared with 132,000 for MSNBC and 341,000 for Fox News Channel. Fox News’ primetime average in the category rose 1% in 2022, according to Nielsen, while MSNBC’s fell 39%.
Getting primetime fixed is critical for CNN as all the cable-news networks steel themselves for a new run-up to a presidential election. Viewership typically falls off after a presidential inauguration, then starts to rebuild after midterm voting. But CNN, MSNBC and Fox News face the challenge of wooing new crowds when people are growing accustomed to seeking out programs that can be streamed on demand, rather than lining up en masse for a show broadcast at a specific time. Younger consumers are also getting more of their news from digital and social sources, rather than TV.
Even as CNN sets about trying to fill 9 p.m., there are increasing signs the hour has lost some of its stature. 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. At CNN, the most-watched program last month was Erin Burnett’s at 7 p.m. No wonder the network recently tested her out at 9.