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John Malone’s CNN Miscalculation

John Malone's CNN Miscalculation
Cheyne Gateley/VIP+; AP Photo

In this article

  • John Malone has created considerable concern about the future direction of CNN, which seems very much up in the air
  • Rather than swing to the political center, CNN needs to play from a familiar playbook in the short term
  • The juggling act of the cable news network and the new streaming service CNN+ must be carefully balanced going forward

Far be it from anyone to question the wisdom of John Malone.

Though he may not be a household name, the 80-year-old is revered among those in the know in the media business for his peerless strategic acumen. The Liberty Media Corp. chairman is essentially the architect of the profit machine that is the modern pay TV business, and you don’t get that successful without knowing how to play multi-level chess while the rest of the industry plays checkers. Just think of him as the mogul’s mogul.

But maybe sometimes even the great ones are capable of error.

Last November, Malone gave a TV interview in which he made clear he felt CNN had strayed too far from its roots in the political center. As he explained on CNBC, “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.”

Malone’s pointed remarks were far from the observations of a dispassionate observer; he sits on the board of directors at Discovery, which is poised to take control of CNN when its acquisition of WarnerMedia is complete in the second quarter of the year. Any doubts that transaction would pass regulatory muster were largely dispelled when the U.S. Department of Justice gave the $43 billion deal its blessing last week.

Malone knew full well the implications of his comments. They rattled CNN employees, already in a state of high anxiety after the sudden exit of their beloved chief Jeff Zucker, who resigned amid a scandal involving his romantic relationship with CNN chief marketing officer Allison Gollust.

Naturally, there were those who matched the footprints on Zucker’s keister to Malone-sized wingtips. If he really wanted to steer CNN in a new direction, getting rid of Zucker makes perfect sense.

But should Malone reposition CNN? The primetime TV ratings would surely support his decision. The network’s audience has eroded tremendously since Zucker expertly pushed CNN in the direction of being a counterweight to the conservative sentiment on which Fox News Channel tripled down during the Trump era. It was a brilliant move, lifting CNN not only out of the ratings doldrums but sharpening a brand identity badly in need of fixing.

However, the downside of Zucker's gambit to turn CNN into an antidote to Trump was that once the network lost its foil, it sucked all the energy out of the screen.

This may be just what Malone needs to rationalize a new direction for CNN, but counterintuitive as it might sound, that's the wrong step to take.

We find ourselves in 2022 not that far away from the 2024 presidential election; the campaigns of those who seek the highest office in the land will start to take shape this year, leading up to an election that looks to be every bit as pitched a battle as the one Trump lost in 2020.

Whether Trump himself will be back again for another battle — current odds are he will — is almost beside the point. The ideological chasm that has split this country practically down the middle hasn't changed at all since the last election. Maybe it's somehow even deepened.

How you feel about Malone moving CNN back to the center probably has a lot to do with where you yourself sit on the political spectrum. Maybe you wholeheartedly agree with Malone that CNN belongs on neutral ground again, where it won't further contribute to the toxic political polarization that has this country in a vice grip. Or maybe you not only think CNN leaning left was a corrective to the rightward lean of Fox News but that its attack mode was pitch-perfect for covering a president who clearly operated shamelessly above the law.

It's precisely that ideological divide Malone and CNN have to play to if they want a snowball's chance of reinvigorating the ratings. Fox News and its various smaller conservative copycats are going to do their thing on the road to 2024, which means vacating the counterweight strategy will probably only succeed in helping CNN's liberal rival MSNBC.

Is acknowledging this market reality a cynical, short-term approach? Absolutely. Again, counterintuitive as it might sound, that's not a bad thing at a time when CNN doesn't have the luxury of plotting a long-term strategy for its programming. First fix the ratings damage by playing out of the proven Zucker playbook for just a little longer, and then it will be better to build the foundation for the longer term once CNN is on more solid ground.

Pushing CNN to the center now is not where big-picture thinking about the news brand belongs at this time. Reserve that kind of thinking for CNN+, the streaming service that has to be seen as more than just a spinoff of the TV network. As WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar has pointed out, CNN+ represents the future core of the CNN business. As hugely important as the network is financially, the bet is the streaming service will eventually replace it as the primary focus as the pay TV world Malone shepherded into existence begins a secular decline.

If that's the case, the TV network isn't the place where the brand identity should be shifted; leave that to CNN+. The network should simply be guided to do whatever it takes to maximize revenues that can provide cover for CNN+ as it takes its first wobbly steps into existence. Maximizing revenues means cranking up the conservative-counterweight strategy.