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Following Ratings Stumble, CNN Plots Revised Course

“There will be changes.”

It was broadcast upfront week, and amid the chaos and the talk of CBS’s schedule and the fate of “30 Rock,” the discussion had shifted to CNN. A media buyer for one of the top firms told me that in a conversation with a senior executive at Time Warner, there was an expectation that CNN would be tweaking its programming, an effort to combat ratings fatigue.

In a terse statement earlier this month, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes said that he and others at the company were “clearly not satisfied” with CNN’s situation, and promised that action would be taken to rectify it.

That situation–at least in the primetime ratings–is grim. Last week the channel had its lowest weekly primetime in total viewers in at least 20 years, and it did not do much better in the adults 25-54 demo that cable news actually sells against. May sweeps and the NBA playoffs probably had something to do with that, but sweeps aren’t enough to explain a 20-year low. Unless an unexpected news event happens, it will likely end up being another rough month for CNN ratings-wise when the final numbers come in next Tuesday.

“Obviously this is an indictment of their lineup, it is not working,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media.

Adgate, who used to work in the research department at CNN and Turner,  says that for a political year ratings across cable news have been relatively flat. CNN saw ratings boosts earlier this year, when there were debates and primaries, but since then things have quieted down. TV viewers that are interested in the day-to-day political scuffles are almost by definition going to be partisan, and there are cable news channels tailored just for them.

“It was the first news network, it does have a great reputation and a great global brand name for the casual news viewer, but those aren’t the people who are going to watch debt news on a regular basis,” Adgate says. “The news is still the star at CNN and it isn’t necessarily the star at other cable news networks.”

For CNN, that is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing when big news breaks, but during slow news months–as May has been–the channel can sink to record-breaking lows. The competition, which is less reliant on breaking news with its opinion-based programs, manage to weather the storm.

Last week CNN’s little sister network HLN topped CNN in the key 25-54 demo, an event which has happened occasionally over the last year or so, most notably during the Casey Anthony trial last year. That ratings dot caught the eye of one of CNN’s earliest executives, Reese Schonfeld, who expressed concern about the state of affairs at the network he was involved in founding.

“One week does not a disaster make, but CNN’s ratings for the previous three weeks were not much better, Schonfeld writes. “CNN is a network having major audience problems, and nobody seems to be doing anything about it except putting up displays on newspaper stands all over Manhattan proclaiming how great the service is.”

That isn’t entirely true of course. Inside CNN staffers are acutely aware of the ratings situation, and do not expect leadership to sit idly by and do nothing. CNN’s signature shows like “Piers Morgan Tonight,” “AC360,” “Erin Burnett Outfront” and “The Situation Room” probably won’t see changes (they also have the benefit of being some of the channel’s highest-rated), but as discussions continue inside of CNN Center in Atlanta, there are changes brewing.

Even with its serious ratings struggles, CNN is not at any imminent risk financially. CNN has the benefit of HLN, the CNN International channels and other sources of revenue to offset any financial issues that CNN/U.S. could have. It also still leads its competition in digital, which continues to grow faster than any other form of media. Journalistically, while CNN still has plenty of filler during the day (as all cable channels do), it continues to rack up awards for its work, as the Peabodys awarded this week demonstrate.

The problem is more of a morale issue than a monetary one. CNN Worldwide is named after CNN, and as Schonfeld notes, “CNN is the flagship of the entire CNN brand, and if it sinks it may destroy the entire organization.”

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