In an interview with NPR’s David Folkenflik, CNN news executive Mark Whitaker said the network wasn’t going to emulate Fox or MSNBC, but also admitted that they are off course:
“A big challenge for CNN now is to really decide who its audience is,” he told Folkenflik, “and to really focus on doing the best job possible for that audience and not think it can be all things to all people.”
That lack of clear direction has led to CNN ratings that spike when there is breaking news, like the unrest in the Middle East or the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, only to fall back to their pre-breaking news levels once the events have passed.
Whitaker says that CNN’s strength is its foreign coverage. He says that people tune in when there are big news events taking place overseas because they know that the network is far more likely to have reporters on the ground before the other networks.
But the network has been unable to translate their strength overseas into any long term ratings success.
Yet Whitaker seems unlikely to seek changes in CNN’s prime time lineup. He told Folkenflik that he is high on Eliot Spitzer and Piers Morgan despite their shows’ perpetually low ratings, but also noted that taking a middle-of-the-road stance doesn’t mean the hosts have to be passive. Sounds like he wants Spitzer and Morgan to be more like their counterparts on Fox and MSNBC while still trying to stick to the middle.
That strategy appears to be just fine with Fareed Zakaria, host of the Sunday show, “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” He thinks that Whitaker has already made CNN “smarter” and said that the network needs to ignore Fox and MSNBC, since in his opinion Fox viewers are never going to watch CNN anyway. He then went on to say that “Our competitors should properly be The New York Times, the BBC and NPR.”
It sounds like Zakaria just admitted that CNN is not so middle-of-the-road despite what Whitaker wants the public to believe.
Now maybe if Whitaker could admit as much maybe CNN will solve its identity crisis and its ratings woes.