Lots to read, digest and discuss in this article from the September issue of Vanity Fair.
The Gray Lady of Cable News
Many think Jon Klein, president of CNN/U.S., has lost the cable-news war to Fox. But CNN has racked up record profits by being bland.
Article for Vanity Fair by Michael Wolff•Illustration by John Cuneo
Jon Klein is an extremely affable broadcast-news executive, a chinos-and-Docksiders 52-year-old whom almost everybody in the TV-news business likes and believes is not only responsible for CNN’s ignominious ratings decline—it has lost in every prime-time slot for most of the last five years—but also for the collapse of broadcast journalism itself.
Among the inside-baseball television-news diaspora—network-news alums who have lost their jobs and been scattered as the television-news industry has been flattened—Klein and his stewardship of the network rise to a level not just of confounding mismanagement but of moral void in which the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. In this example of the existential crisis of modern life, not only is CNN being beaten year after year by Fox, but it’s precisely its well-intentioned earnestness that is responsible for the rise of ideological television.
“CNN’s inability to evolve has given the game to Fox and us,” says MSNBC president Phil Griffin.
And now, because of the network’s failure—the dismal ratings of Campbell Brown at eight, the pushing out of Larry King after 25 years, and the rumored departures of Anderson Cooper and John King—Klein is getting a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remake prime time. I’m sure I can’t accurately, or fulsomely enough, describe the guffawing and head smacking and sheer incredulity that his first decision in this effort—to hire disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer as one of the two eight P.M. anchors—has provoked among the diaspora. In fact, the question of why Eliot Spitzer was hired is just cream on top of the far more hotly debated one: Why hasn’t Jon Klein been fired?
But Klein, who has the title president of CNN/U.S., may not be the person most responsible for the collapse of CNN. And, in fact, CNN may not have collapsed at all—last year was its most profitable (half a billion dollars’ worth of profit); the current quarter will be more profitable still.
CNN, unlike virtually every other news organization, has not laid off anybody—it keeps hiring—and is expanding its field resources and network of bureaus around the world. It’s the last of the old-fashioned television-news operations—likely the world’s biggest. Not for nothing is it the place most people go when big news happens, when the world shudders. “The founding idea of CNN is Event. ‘Getting a signal out of there [wherever the event is] is our triumph,’” interprets Richard Wald, a longtime network-news executive now at the Columbia Journalism School, “no matter that Event is no longer the primary interest of viewers.”
While event-driven reporting, shortly after the event occurs, invariably becomes repetitive and dull, not least of all because everybody else is reporting it, at CNN they are not ready to admit that dull is wrong. If CNN be dull, then news is dull—so be it.
Jon Klein is a generational figure in the news business—a business precisely described and stratified by when you came into it. He went into network news in 1982, long before cable news was anybody’s interest or worry. He rose at CBS to run 60 Minutes and 48 Hours. In 1999 he bolted to launch the FeedRoom, an Internet-news start-up—a kind of YouTube before its time. After the collapse of the dot-com world, he became, in 2004, an ideal candidate for CNN—an old television hand with new-media experience.
Pay no attention that he was hired to run the nation’s leading cable news network but had no cable experience: by 2004 all other cable news had become, in the mind of CNN, non-news and even anti-news. CNN, which Ted Turner had quixotically launched in 1980 as something altogether different from network news—inexpensive, round-the-clock, edgy, focused on events and not personalities—had become worthy and distinguished news. It had come full circle to see itself just as network news once saw itself: voice-of-God news.
And what CNN had done to network news—made it look old, irrelevant, pompous—Fox News, within a few years of its launch, in 1996, was doing to CNN. Fox was re-inventing the language, tone, look, and pace of news—and doing this as conservative news. So, at least in the mind of CNN, to be interesting was to be conservative. Dull meant fair-minded, objective, balanced.
CNN, to the people who work there, and to the executives at its parent, Time Warner, represents the tradition of news based on investment in fact-finding, concern for the commonweal, and intelligent reporting and storytelling skills. Every point of ratings it gives up has come to represent a setback for that tradition. The current nadir of its prime-time schedule has pretty much meant the cultural victory of outré news. At CNN, they tend to see the odds as painfully overwhelming—there is just no way to compete with this new desire for opinion and for political identification. There’s almost a point of pride in not competing: last year, CNN ousted Lou Dobbs, the longtime anchor who had become too opinionated—even though he had the network’s highest-rated prime-time show. In 2003, the network got rid of Connie Chung, in spite of her high ratings, because she was too tabloid.
There is, at CNN, a lot of attention paid to its DNA—Dobbs and Chung were bad for or at odds with the DNA (one CNNer described them to me as bad for “the CNN feng shui”). But part of CNN’s troubles—if they are troubles—may actually be a confusion about its identity. Ted Turner’s CNN was a high-profile, commercial idea—not a traditional capital-J journalism idea. In a complicated piece of corporate triangulation, Time Warner agreed to buy the company in 1995. (Turner was locked up by his investors, including Time Warner, and had little choice but to sell Turner Broadcasting.) This not only imposed Time Warner’s layers of postal-system-like bureaucracy on CNN, but also combined the old Time Inc. news ethos—fusty, Ivy League, New York, Establishment—with CNN’s. CNN, under Time Warner—with Ted Turner steadily losing his fight for control and influence—arguably became more Time than CNN, suddenly part of a long tradition and imperative for respectability, often feeling as Old Guard and as fuddy-duddy as a newsmagazine. In 2001, Walter Isaacson, the editor of Time magazine—among the most traditional and archetypal figures in the organization—was made CNN’s chief, even though he had no background in television.
On the other hand, the fustiness that has contributed to its losing the prime-time war, and thereby, in the minds of the diaspora, ceding broadcast journalism to Fox, is exactly what it has come to sell so profitably.
Cable has two revenue sources: the fees cable systems pay to carry programming, and the fees advertisers pay to be on the programs. Cable fees average from 5 to 20 cents per subscriber per month, with CNN getting substantially more. CNN’s cable fees remain high in part because it is the respectable news network. A cable operator would be making a politically controversial statement if it carried just Fox and MSNBC. CNN now makes its money by charging cable operators a premium fee to avoid such controversy. Similarly, advertisers want to be on CNN because it is not Fox. To advertise on CNN associates you with respectability—while advertisers on Fox are associated with Bill O’Reilly. Even if you want the Fox audience, also making a CNN buy gives you cover. Dull, bland, worthy, consistent, has a market.
Except that the bottom may be falling out of the market. How long can the respectability strategy prevail without an audience?
In fact, at CNN there is a lot of argument about audience, most of which concludes, somewhat by magic, that its audience is actually larger than Fox’s. And it is—sort of, sometimes. When the news is big, it is. And often, in sheer numbers, it is, too—except that CNN’s audience leaves it almost as quickly as it turns to it, and Fox’s audience stays.
So the problem, as CNN and Time Warner see it, especially with prime time, is not so much audience as buzz.
“A lot of the feeling inside the company is that the problem is not CNN—the problem is CNN’s P.R.,” says someone familiar with the thinking of Time Warner’s C.E.O., Jeff Bewkes.
In Time Warner Kremlinology (both viciously internecine and carefully hands-off), notice is paid to Bewkes’s hiring of Gary Ginsberg—a liberal who’d previously been Murdoch’s head P.R. guy (with knowledge of the Fox strategy)—to run Time Warner’s P.R. strategy. The always tremulous tea leaves at Time Warner have Ginsberg being given a special CNN portfolio—a buzz-oversight mission.
Hence, suddenly, there is a hurry-up about prime time, which is any network’s main buzz motor. Campbell Brown’s own statement about her inability to attract a meaningful audience was a buzz kill. Then Anderson Cooper began suggesting he might leave, too—not taking the blame, as Brown had done for her ratings, but putting the blame on CNN for not delivering a powerful enough lead-in schedule. Then, in a long-rumored move, the network decided to throw in the towel on Larry King, who, despite his age and slipping ratings, has continued to be the mainstay of its prime time.
Jon Klein was ordered to make it all new.
Now CNN stands in vivid contrast to Fox not only in style of journalism, but also in style of management. Fox is the vision of one man: Roger Ailes. Even Rupert Murdoch—at least according to Ailes—can’t meddle with what Ailes does. CNN, on the other hand, sits in the middle of one of the world’s most labyrinthine enterprises, ever buffeted by changing bureaucratic fortunes. (CNN was taken over by Time Warner, then Time Warner was taken over by AOL, then Time Warner retook the company.)
After Bewkes in the complex line of command at CNN comes Phil Kent, in CNN’s original home of Atlanta. Kent runs all of Turner Broadcasting, which, in one of the anomalies of Time Warner bureaucracy, is still an autonomous unit of cable programming inside what is primarily a cable-programming company—so, in addition to news, he gets TBS, TNT, Turner Classic Movies, truTV and Peachtree TV, Cartoon Network, Boomerang, and Adult Swim. After Kent comes Jim Walton, who got the top CNN job after Isaacson quit, in 2004. A Turner lifer who came up through the sports division, Walton, also Atlanta-based, is responsible for all of CNN, which includes not just the network but the Headline News Network (HLN), the broadcasts you get in your hotel room overseas, and the Web site (CNN.com, with its 75 million unique visitors every month, is, in fact, the undisputed leader in Internet news, the fastest-growing part of the news business). There is a sense that buzzless Atlanta is something of a redoubt from the network itself. Atlanta is focused on the larger picture. Which, curiously, is another element that helps protect Jon Klein’s job. Up in New York, he takes the brunt of the blame for CNN’s not being cool—or, it sometimes appears, even competent—while the guys in Atlanta get the credit for making all the dough.
Jon Klein, in other words, answers to a lot of people, a corporate rather than television art: Klein is reported by various diaspora sources to excuse CNN’s prime-time performance by saying that his bosses wouldn’t let him hire MSNBC’s star Keith Olbermann when he wanted to, while, alternatively, in a diss to MSNBC and that ilk of programming, saying he refused to hire Olbermann when he could have. (Sometimes, in this story, it’s said to be MSNBC anchor and cable star Rachel Maddow, who briefly appeared on CNN, whom Klein pridefully declined to hire.) Klein, in other words, treads the fine CNN line of seeming to understand the low road of success, while, with great and sometimes painful fortitude, taking the high road.
Klein’s original idea for replacing Brown in the eight P.M. hour was to do a show with a panel of “investigators”—detectives, prosecutors, tough-guy journalists who would do … investigative journalism. Dramatic, but high-end. One of Klein’s ideas for the panel was Eliot Spitzer, who, albeit disgraced, had made his career as a muckraking attorney general. Spitzer, however, when contacted about this idea by CNN, said he couldn’t possibly investigate anyone without subpoena power. This might have suggested a level of arrogance greater than even that of the cable opinion jockeys. But after Jeff Bewkes had approved hiring the tainted former governor, after the temperature of the Time Warner board had been taken about such a dubious hire, and after the whole idea of the investigative series had been thrown out, Eliot Spitzer, a man who, on top of being one of the most disliked people in America, has no television experience, was given a show.
In a similar, hurry up and make a huge decision based on a pure crap-shoot move—and a desperate desire not to look like they are doing anything that the other successful cable news networks are doing—CNN, as this article closed, was on the verge of offering the British newspaper editor and reality-show bon vivant, Piers Morgan, Larry King’s job.
Spitzer will probably flop and Jon Klein will probably be fired. But not for a while. The powers that be at Time Warner and CNN are, despite their bad press and the implication that they are ruining rather than representing high standards of journalism, actually happy about how things are going. If news is a commodity, if CNN’s fundamental problem is that it spends most of its air time reporting what everybody already knows (and not spicing it up with point of view or going narrow and deep into a subject), then, well, why not just be the biggest producer of it in the world—that’s a business. CNN, which has just ended its contract with the A.P. newswire, now does what the A.P. does—if you’re a broadcaster, you can buy CNN’s news feed (you don’t have to get the news yourself). CNN continues to try to do a deal with one of the networks. In the past, there was almost a deal with NBC and with ABC—now they’re talking to CBS. The network could have its stars and they would mouth CNN’s news. Inevitably, this will happen, CNN believes. In the end, there will be only one provider of boring news—that’s CNN’s hope.
Indeed, the other reason Jon Klein still has his job is that his bosses might not really want him to fix CNN even if he could. (Another variation on this, by a Klein supporter: “If Jon Klein can’t fix CNN, it can’t be fixed.”) Fixing CNN means taking sides in the great news wars—making a stand which you have to have the balls for, and which could get you killed (or fired). CNN is a coward’s play—but not necessarily a losing one. It just isn’t interesting or new or worth getting up for. So another reason Jon Klein is safe for the moment: would anyone really want his job?
Michael Wolff is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.
Friday, August 6, 2010
Lots to read, digest and discuss in this article from the September issue of Vanity Fair.