the kicker

This is CNN?

The third-place news channel may be forced to change up its format
August 13, 2012

CNN may be responding to the reality of its falling ratings with reality tv programming.

Previous attempts to stem the tide of departing viewers have not gone well for the channel. The 2008 election coverage “holograms” of correspondents were widely and deservedly ridiculed. The holograms returned in January of this year as a teaching tool to explain the Iowa caucuses, where they were mocked by CNN’s own on-air talent. Meanwhile, Larry King’s replacement, Piers Morgan, is no ratings juggernaut. Though Piers Morgan Tonight had a strong premiere in January 2011 with three times as many viewers as King had at the end of his run, it now averages fewer viewers than King ever did. Oh, and let’s not forget that Morgan is still fending off those phone hacking allegations.

CNN’s “flagship foreign affairs show,” Fareed Zakaria GPS, was just suspended indefinitely over allegations that Zakaria plagiarized Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article in both a Time column and a blog post. You can’t blame CNN for that, but you certainly can for its foul-up with the Supreme Court Affordable Care Act decision, when the channel erroneously reported that the individual insurance mandate was struck down.

The result? In May, CNN had its lowest weekday primetime ratings in over 20 years. CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton, who headed the channel for a decade, announced his resignation last month. That leaves CNN with little on which to pin its hopes. Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper (whose ratings aren’t so hot either) do not a news channel make.

Even so, people were surprised when Anthony Bourdain, the chef/author/Travel Channel host, was brought on as host of a new CNN show set to premiere next year. Now it seems Bourdain’s hire is part of CNN’s new larger strategy to move away from the news and towards reality shows.

The New York Post‘s Michael Shain reported on Monday that CNN is “going Hollywood”—looking for “big-name stars not afraid to talk politics” (Alec Baldwin should be getting a phone call any minute now … ) and reality shows. CNN will also be using outside producers for the first time in its history, Shain reported, possibly because those producers have vastly more experience in reality shows than CNN does.

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At least one of the Post’s rumors looks to be true: that CNN is looking to change up its weekend programming. CNN released a statement saying as much:

CNN, which recently announced the hiring of Anthony Bourdain as a contributor, is continuing to explore other nonfiction original series for the weekend. We routinely pursue new talent and programming concepts within the news category and often shoot pilots for any number of our networks.

It is a shame that CNN does not seem to be able to come up with a way to get ratings by reporting the news. Fox News and MSNBC did it by skewing in different political directions, leaving CNN stuck in the middle and third in the ratings. With nowhere left or right to go, CNN may have to ease its way out of the scene entirely.

Perhaps we can look to one of CNN’s fellow Turner-owned cable channels as a guide of what to expect. In 2008, Court TV became TruTV, with the new motto: “Not reality. Actuality.” Daytime courtroom coverage was cut back and primetime programming became shows about pawn shops, car repossessions, and a hot dog stand full of workers who like to give diners a “blast of sass” and “put the ‘cuss’ back in customer service.” Basically, TruTV airs the stuff that A&E and the History Channel’s reality programming departments passed on.

Anderson Cooper may want to dust off his reality show host résumé.

Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.