The big news out of the TV ratings report this week is that CNN is in fourth place — last place. That's right, the 24-hour cable news giant is floundering in the eyes of the viewers. But CNN isn't concerned. In fact, the big cheese at CNN, Jon Klein, said that ratings don't matter as much as you think. Here is an excerpt from his comments on a call with staff yesterday:
Yes, our ratings in prime were down in October. Remember - we are a 24hr network - not a 3hr network. We are also just one network in a group that attracts hundreds of millions of viewers a month. Media writers might not understand that. Our competitors don't either. Despite the bad press we don't lose sight of OUR business. We, CNN/U.S., still attracts millions and millions of viewers a month, more than our closest competitors. Writers don't talk about our users — we are on air and on line, globally — rather they break it down to one part of the day.
What is Jon Klein's plan? Simple - do great work. Here is how he framed it:
Excellent journalism is what we are focused on. We refuse to do the things that might get us a quick number or cater to the extremes that would alienate our core viewers. It's important to work at it every day - it's our mission. It's the key to our growth. If we are outstanding ALL the time (and we are getting better and better at it) we will have an impact over time.
Now, I would argue that CNN isn't anywhere close to achieving that standard of excellence - with all their 'breaking news' alerts and 'expert' contributors. The news that they produce isn't any better than what the rest of the struggling media is producing. In fact, when CNN released its iPhone application a few weeks back, I refused to pay the $1.99 because I didn't think that the value of what they were offering was worth even that much. I do, and will pay, a lot for news and information — but it has to be high value. CNN hasn't proven to me that they can offer that yet.
Still, at least publicly, Jon Klein's view of how CNN can succeed - both as journalists, and financially - is different. Its refreshing to hear a news leader taking a long(er) term view, having both the confidence, and presumably the backing of their financial masters, that setting a course for excellence will pay off in the end. They still have to do the work, and stay that course. They still have to demonstrate to news consumers like me that their offering is worth my investment of time and money. And they have to find a way to sustain that, to be patient even as the criticism of their approach persists.
Good luck, CNN.