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Friday, June 8, 2012

CNN’s Hosts: Off with Their Heads!

Hitting record-low ratings among total viewers and in the 25-54 age demographic, CNN had its overall lowest-rated month in April 2012 since August 2001. In May 2012, the network hit a 20-year low for total viewers during primetime viewing. Something had gone seriously wrong. Perhaps the easiest move when a company takes a nose-dive is to fire the top. Accordingly, Time Warner executives were thinking of replacing the president of CNN Worldwide. While taking off the top might make sense in government because the entire administration is apt to change, business firms tend to be more entrenched even when under new management.

In the case of CNN, the culprit may have been bad hiring decisions. If so, the solution would lie in replacing the staff who made the hires as well as the “personalities” hired. In an age of “media personalities” wherein opinion typically accompanies journalistic interviewing, it is only natural to hire people who have strong personalities. It is far less common to witness interviewees going after hosts in terms of their personalities. In May 2012, Donald Trump laid into Wolf Blitzer during an interview. The real-estate magnet told the journalist that the introduction was inappropriate, but then added a personal insult in remarking, but “that’s okay, because I’ve gotten to know you over the years.” It would appear that Trump and others “in the loop” having had years of experience with Blitzer had come to the conclusion that he could not be trusted. The general public—meaning the viewers—could only surmise on the accusation, knowing only the “on-screen” media personality.

Years before Trump’s revelation, I had already glimpsed a bit of the man behind the curtain when Blitzer wished everyone “a happy holiday and happy New Year.” The meaning of this statement struck me as suggestive of a Jewish prejudice against Christmas, as if the U.S. holiday were only the religious holiday celebrated by Christians. I also saw footage of Blitzer at a Hollywood event as he was desperately trying to get interviewed by a journalist.

My sense that CNN “stars” might be too self-absorbed got a shot in the arm when Piers Morgan admitted on-camera while covering Queen Elizabeth II’s sixty years on the state’s throne that he really wanted to be king. That was too much even for one of Morgan’s co-host, who said in exasperation, “Oh, Piers!” Strangely, he had previously said that he was glad to be a subject (of the Queen).  Might it be that pride in being a subject is really a subterfuge for a desire to be king? Piers’ imagining of himself as king of the island (an interesting fantasy, given that he had been implicated in the Murdoch hacking scandal) was revealing. Two days before, his coverage had been reduced to drawing attention to the rain—a constant refrain during the parade of boats. He even pointed out that there was water on his seat (as if any of the viewers cared). Moreover, he was careful to stress everything that was distinctively British, while generalizing everything American across fifty republics (Britain is one republic). My instinctive reaction was to ask, well then why don’t you stay over there? 

I was not at all surprised to learn of CNN’s low ratings. I suspected that even if viewers had not been aware of it, they had probably reacted in reaction to the arrogance of the major hosts. People were voting with their remote controls even if they couldn’t put their finger on what was behind their decisions. Rather than limit the change to the top brass at CNN, Time Warner executives would have been wiser to demand that the major “stars” of CNN be replaced en masse. Owning a subsidiary does not mean that oversight is limited to the subsidiary’s executive suite, at least if the parent company is being capably run.


Rebecca Shapiro, “CNNConsidering Leadership Change in Wake of Ratings Woes: Report,” The Huffington Post, June 8, 2012.