The termination of Chris Licht as the CEO of CNN has shaken the windows of the media world. Licht has “chops.” He has had a successful run as Show Runner and Executive Producer of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the reboot of CBS This Morning, the launch of Morning Joe on MSNBC, and Our Cartoon President. The fact that he brought such credibility and success to CNN created the illusion that all would be reviewed and relaunched to success. It wasn’t to be so. He was terminated this past week. Somewhat dramatically by David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Brothers Discovery.
It's hard to believe that Licht was empowered to make whatever changes he wanted without some level of guidance from above. Someone had to have a bigger-picture objective in mind when they hired him as a new CEO. The blogosphere seems to say that the objective was to move CNN back to the center, away from liberal thinking and opinion, and become more of a news product that appeals to both sides of the political aisle. If the ratings are to be believed, the actions taken to execute the concept didn’t pan out.
CNN was in trouble at the time they changed leadership. Fox News had been pounding them in the ratings for a long time. Most of us can only imagine what it is like to focus on turning around and stopping the audience and advertiser erosion of a big entity like CNN. Some of us, including myself, have been in those types of meetings where a germ of an idea begins to swirl around a conference room and picks up speed as it takes on a life of its own. Because driven individuals want to see something happen … an emotional decision is made. It takes courage to call out that the emperor has no clothes.
What is most clear to those of us whose livelihood depends on satisfying an audience, and what is seen in research project after project, is that your product and brand have to be aligned. You have to excel at satisfying your core. It is difficult to change an audience's perception of a legacy brand. When I first arrived at Cumulus Media, the decision was made to change WRQX/Washington, DC, a Hot AC, to Top-40/CHR as DC’s 107-3. The music was changed. The legacy morning show was eliminated. A new group of talent joined a new Program Director. The new PD was good with a successful track record. The air-talent were superb. The station sounded better than its’ ratings. The format flip wasn’t right for that frequency and it didn’t fulfill a need in the market. Failure.
When WRQX returned to the Mix 107.3 brand, rehired Jack Diamond, Jimmy Alexander and Erica Hillary, employed a new PD and took the format back to Hot AC, the stations ratings performed better than they had immediately prior to the change away to CHR. The morning show later added Blaire Kelleher and Lisa Anne and saw even more rating growth. The rebirth of the station, and its’ ratings success, didn’t stop the future sale-off of the radio property, but it proved that sometimes the reboot can be a successful strategy. Even if unintended.
One can also point to the format flip from Classic Hits WCBS-FM to the Adult Variety format that is Jack-FM. The Jack format remains highly successful in many markets including Nashville, Los Angeles and Dallas. My supposition is that had the format been put on a different frequency in New York City, it would have seen success. It wasn’t. Bringing Classic Hits back to WCBS-FM was one of the first things that Dan Mason did when he returned to CBS as CEO. The station grew quickly and surpassed the previous ratings on the station pre-Jack. Success.
Likewise, the new regime at CNN failed to understand who their audience was and their viewers’ expectations of the network. If they did research, and they certainly may have, they either didn’t speak to the right respondents or they tried to mold their study questionnaire to provide them with the answers they wanted. The reason you do research is to find the markets’ perceptions, needs/wants, weaknesses, strengths and opportunities. The reason you ignore research is because you didn’t get the answers that you wanted. Seldom a smart approach.
CNN is seen by conservatives as liberal-leaning news. It’s seen by some liberals as not liberal enough. To attempt to become a credible news source as it was in the past, not influenced to lean one side or the other by politics, is counter to what CNN evolved into over the years. The CNN of Bernard Shaw, who hid under a bed in Baghdad reporting on the bombing of the city during Desert Storm, is long gone. That’s not a critical shot at CNN. Times changed and so did CNN. The point is that someone missed who comprises the CNN audience today.
If CNN wanted to become a middle-of-the-road news product focusing on journalism and not commentary, they could have reinvigorated HLN - aka Headline News. They had a channel originally known for continuing news reporting and featured Robin Meade and Morning Express to start the day. The HLN product line was denigrated with crime-oriented programming airing back-to-back after the morning shows ended. HLN ceased to be a Headline News service. Bringing it back would have made sense from an audience standpoint, but perhaps not a revenue standpoint. Although the experiences noted of creating demand by eliminating a product, only to bring it back, has shown success. Sidenote; those format flips were not designed to create a “want” among the audience. That’s simply what happened.
The bottom line is that someone somewhere at CNN failed to understand their brand and their audience. You always need to know your customer or audience. You need to know your brand. The product you’re presenting has to fit the brand and appeal to the audience. If it is in any way misaligned, you won’t find the success you’re seeking. You won’t satisfy your audience. If the brand is a heritage brand, you’ll never fully change the audience's perception without much pain. Especially if it’s a big brand with years of heritage built up. That I know from experience.
The lesson; You have to know your audience. They aren’t always who you want them to be, but they are who they are.