Cold-calling celebrities in the early-morning hours. Breathlessly reporting on flesh-eating "zombie" attacks. Hiring TV chef Anthony Bourdain. There are a lot of changes going on over at CNN these days. And there's a very good reason for all the changes: Last month, ratings for the cable news network sunk to a 20-year-low.
In May, CNN averaged a mere 389,000 viewers in primetime, its lowest total since October 1991 (back when the first George Bush was still in the White House). To be fair, all of the major news networks were down year-to-year from last May, when the death of Osama bin Liden boosted viewership. But CNN's primetime audience declined a whopping 51 percent, finishing a distant third to Fox News and MSNBC. Most humiliatingly, CNN even fell behind its more tabloidy kid-sister station, Headline News, among key demographics.
So the network has had to resort to stunts like "Wake 'Em Up," where the "Early Start" anchors dial up famous names in the early morning to pepper them with questions, and cover juicy stories like the recent pseudo-zombie attack in Florida. While a bit disappointing, these developments are understandable: The most buzz we've heard about CNN lately comes from viral-video moments like Anderson Cooper's giggle fits that don't exactly lead to loyal viewership. And they haven't found a compelling TV personality to fill the void left by Larry King, who ended his nightly talk show in December 2010.
Watch Anderson Cooper's most recent giggle fit right here:
And it may be that CNN's legendary objectivity is part of the problem. The network has always prided itself on covering the news with an even hand, but more partisan networks like Fox News and MSNBC have stolen away viewers by taking sides in the growing culture war and offering strong opinions with a conservative or liberal slant. CNN may win on journalistic integrity, but they're losing on passion.
In any case, something's gotta give at CNN; hence, all the deck-shuffling. They're even creating a new food and travel show starring the curmudgeonly Bourdain to try and boost their lackluster weekend ratings -- which would seem to lead the network even further away from its original hard-news mission. CNN is actually set to celebrate its 30th anniversary tomorrow. Now it just needs to figure out how to adapt so it can stick around for another 30 years.