CNN’s Latest Primetime Gambit Has Been a Ratings Failure
Amid its worst ratings in over a decade, CNN recently attempted to reinvent its primetime strategy. But that move to increase viewership appears to have failed.
More than a year after his most-watched host Chris Cuomo was fired over an ethics scandal involving his disgraced ex-governor brother, the cable news pioneer is struggling to find a permanent replacement in the 9 p.m. timeslot. Last month, the network decided to fill the crucial hour with citizen events and specials focusing on breaking news topics and interviews with prominent politicians and celebrities.
However, since launching this formula late last month, CNN has yet to see viewers embrace the new direction. In fact, this year CNN’s primetime specials drew smaller audiences than the network’s regular programming in the same timeslot.
Since the beginning of the year, CNN has averaged 679,000 viewers in the 9 p.m. time slot when Anderson Cooper, whose evening program airs at 8 p.m., announces the hour. Before Cuomo’s move to primetime a few years ago, Anderson Cooper 360 was a two-hour newscast. Additionally, at 7:00 p.m., CNN anchor Erin Burnett averaged a total audience of 567,000 when filling in during primetime slot. Cooper has averaged 159,000 viewers in the main 25-54 ad bracket during his 9 p.m. broadcasts, while Burnett has attracted 114,000 in the demo.
By comparison, the channel’s special town hall events, which have aired at 9 p.m. since late February, have drawn just 429,000 total viewers and 101,000 in its key demographic. The hour-long events focused on the East Palestine train disaster, the fentanyl crisis, a Q&A with Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin and the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
CNN has also aired special reports on anti-Semitism, the Alex Murdaugh trial and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, along with interviews with first lady Jill Biden, HBO late-night host Bill Maher and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. These broadcasts brought in a total of 509,000 viewers and a demo audience of 101,000.
Aside from the Maher interview with host Jake Tapper, which drew a total of 821,000 viewers and 183,000 in the 25-54 age group, none of the specials or town halls have matched the numbers brought in by Cooper or Burnett, who described the hour as more conventional primetime show hosted .
When Cooper announced the 9 p.m. hour on March 2, the only time the slot had been filled with regular programming since late February, it drew a total viewership of 882,000 and 179,000 in the main demo.
Overall, the network’s specials in the 9 p.m. slot have averaged 482,000 total viewers and 101,000 in the 25-54 metric since the start of the year. Total viewership is 23 percent lower than that of CNN’s regular programming for the same hour and a 29 percent decline in advertising demographics.
“We experimented outdoors for 2.5 weeks,” CNN spokesman Matt Dornic said in a statement after this article was published. “Although we were deemed ‘a failure’ by the team of programming experts at The Beast and the competitor who brought this story to market, we will find the strength to carry on.”
Since taking over from ousted CNN President Jeff Zucker last year, network chief Chris Licht has vowed to “try to take a different route” at a time “when extremes dominate cable news.” This included the split of several on-air personalities deemed too partisan or controversial, while the network’s weekday lineup was given a complete overhaul.
Despite the program changes and the switch to a more impartial “centrist” editorial direction — all amid rounds of layoffs — the network’s ratings problems have only continued while CNN has grappled with controversy surrounding the reshuffles.
CNN this morningwhich replaced the network’s long-running morning show New day last fall, has yet to connect with audiences and only attracted 360,000 total viewers last month. Additionally, Don Lemon – who has been moved from a prime-time solo gig to a joint morning show with two other hosts – has sparked outrage over sexist remarks about women in their “prime years.” Amid the episodes, Licht briefly benched Lemon before announcing the 56-year-old would be undergoing “formal training”.
It is still unclear whether CNN primetime will continue to be largely dedicated to the special program or Licht will eventually install a permanent host. During last year’s midterm election, CNN Tapper — which hosts a weekday afternoon program and the network’s flagship talk show on Sunday mornings — temporarily moved its normal timeslot to 9 p.m.
Licht has even rolled out the possibility of giving comedians and celebrities a chance to host the timeslot in recent months. Having already decided to air Maher’s Friday night after-show broadcast on CNN, Licht reportedly considered NBA legend Charles Barkley, who is currently an analyst for Inside the NBA on TNT to possibly fill the slot. Both Maher and Barkley work for CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery.
“Chris [Licht] engages in conversations with dozens of culturally relevant people from the worlds of news, sports, entertainment and comedy,” a CNN spokesman said at the time.