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The CNN Ratings Disaster Would Be Worse Without Its Manufactured Audience


Brian Stelter was mad. That alone is not newsworthy, as many on-air personalities over at the Apple Network have been perturbed for two and a half years now. But what he was in a snit over was both odd and completely lacking in self-awareness, a condition CNN has suffered for some time now.

Unsurprisingly, it was tweeting from the White House that sparked the reaction. Stelter was set off by President Trump making a number of comments and tweets in support of the news channel One America News Network (OANN). The notably right-leaning outlet has been a favorable source of news for the president, and in return (as a reward?) he has lately been touting the channel in his feed.

Stelter was having none of it. CNN’s self-appointed media watchdog launched a series of tweets demeaning the network’s presence and ridiculing the idea they have “good” ratings.

This is subterfuge, as Trump was not comparing the OANN audience share to the larger networks’. Brian pretends to counter the claim that OANN has big ratings—except Trump’s words on the matter were that the network was experiencing a “big ratings jump.” His comment was stating they are on the rise.

In attempting to counter the president, this was hardly Stelter’s largest mistake. That would be his mention of ratings at all, considering his home channel has been in a free fall with viewership for a good portion of this year. Once the industry standard, CNN has fallen well behind the other major cable news channels—Fox News and MSNBC—for years. And 2019 has gone from bad to brutal for the network.

Statistician, Heal Thyself

It is revealing that Stelter’s Twitter thread hesitates to get into the hard numbers. CNN has been enduring consistent erosion, trailing in primetime behind not just other news nets but also channels like The Food Network and The Hallmark Channel. Fox News frequently outdraws CNN in multiples, at a three or four to one ratio some nights. CNN’s audience flight became even starker following the arrival of the special counsel report, with double-digit percentage drops in the ratings in the days following its release.

To see just how bad—and how isolated—the CNN performance has been, one need only look back to 2018. In year-over-year rating comparisons of primetime performance, you can see the massive hit CNN has taken, while its competitors fare much better. All three networks are down, but one plunged.

Looking at the first week of June, both Fox News and MSNBC saw a dip of 4 percent. CNN dropped 33 percent. One-third of its audience fled! And in the core demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds it was far worse, as CNN lost more than half of those viewers, at  -55 percent.

That last metric is of particular alarm, as the viewing group measured is the prime demo used to set advertising rates. While critics often try to dismiss Fox News dominating the ratings for years as the result of an aging audience, the hard numbers defy the claim. In that core demo, Fox has around a 50 percent higher figure than MSNBC, and it nearly doubles that at CNN.

What makes this measurable failure even more pronounced is considering the remarkable edge CNN enjoys in the TV marketplace. Beyond the fact that CNN once was the only news channel, it benefits from a reality of cable television. CNN is essentially a mandatory selection in even the most basic of cable packages, resulting in a market penetration approaching 95 percent. By the network’s own measure that amounts to roughly 90 million accounts, as it garners well below 1 percent of those customers.

Cornering a Marketplace?

However, cable subscribers are hardly the only arena where CNN has tried to corner a marketplace. In recent years, a growing number of travelers have wondered why they are perpetually subjected to CNN in the concourses and terminals at our nation’s airports.

CNN has deals with nearly 60 airports to be the exclusive broadcast, paying an annual premium and even supplying the televisions for the right. The network controls these TV sets, meaning workers cannot change the channels nor even lower the volume.

Travelers’ distemper at this is understandable. To say that CNN has been trafficking in anti-Trump fervor is more than partisan supposition; it is a measurable fact. The Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media has studied the press coverage, and it is far more than a biased slant taking place, it is an obsession.

Following his inauguration, President Trump was receiving more than three times the amount of news coverage than prior administrations. Compared to negative coverage of past presidents, it is blatant. From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama there have been slight imbalances in ratio, in and around a rate of three to two. Donald Trump has been granted 80 percent negative news stories—and with more than three times the volume of reports.

Even with these assured audience access methods, whether compulsory cable inclusion or catering the broadcast output at travel destinations, CNN finds itself slipping further out of the realm of influence. The channel has a number of rigged standards in its favor, yet it is rapidly falling out of favor with viewers. The effort to compare themselves to of an up-and-coming outlet to lend forced perspective on its ratings cannot hide these realities.