By Benjamin Mullin
On a recent conference call, CNN chief Jeff Zucker urged editors
and producers at the network not to shift focus from coronavirus
news updates despite weeks of wall-to-wall coverage of the
"You need to stay on the news," Mr. Zucker said, according to a
person who listened. "People are coming to CNN for the news right
TV ratings suggest his hunch was on target. CNN and other cable
news outlets could scarcely imagine that anything could juice
viewership like the 2016 U.S. presidential election and its
aftermath; but ratings have soared during the pandemic, reaching
levels well above those when "Russian interference" and "Mueller
report" dominated the news.
CNN has averaged 2.2 million total viewers in prime time so far
in April, more than double its viewership in the fourth quarter of
2019, and roughly 57% higher than its election-season peak,
according to Nielsen data. Fox News is up nearly 50% since the end
of last year to over four million viewers, increasing its lead over
its two main rivals. MSNBC has seen the smallest lift. The three
networks' websites all saw big audience gains, too.
Cashing in has been difficult for all the channels, however, as
the economic fallout of the pandemic causes ad spending to
collapse. CNN has revised its ad revenue forecasts downward, people
familiar with the matter said. Instead of a double-digit percentage
increase in revenue this year, the network could be staring at a
significant decline, one top media analyst said. CNN's digital arm
is trying to entice ad buyers by offering to match their spending
on public-service messages with free advertising that touts the
social good companies are doing, one of the people said.
Chronicling the crisis for the public has been an odyssey.
Anchors and producers committed to telling Americans the importance
of social distancing and staying home are themselves trying to
figure out how to perform their jobs safely night after night. CNN
is using skeleton crews of producers in Atlanta and New York after
encouraging many of its employees to work from home.
In some cases, anchors have begun using one-person "flash
studios" at the production facility instead of their usual large,
glass-walled setup with multiple camera operators, people familiar
with the matter said. Crews at the facilities volunteer for their
stints, the people said, and no one is being forced to show up.
Despite the precautions, two prominent CNN anchors -- Brooke
Baldwin and Chris Cuomo -- contracted the virus. Mr. Cuomo, perhaps
the network's highest-profile coronavirus chronicler, has
documented his status nightly while broadcasting from home.
Anderson Cooper, who like Mr. Cuomo is New York-based, did his show
at home for a time after a staffer was infected. The company
declined to provide a count of confirmed cases among its staff
"I don't think we realized how crazy this would be," one CNN
employee said. "Cuomo's show is from his basement. Nobody expected
Mr. Zucker, who serves as news and sports chairman of CNN parent
WarnerMedia, a unit of AT&T Inc., has always doubled as an
editor in chief for the network. And he has stuck with that role
for the coronavirus story. He has suggested story ideas in emails
to lieutenants, on calls with producers and in town-hall meetings
Last year CNN sank to third place in cable-news ratings. But its
recent jump has put it within shouting distance of Fox News in the
core news demographic of those 25 to 54 years old with an average
of about 50,000 viewers separating them in prime time so far in
April, according to Nielsen data. For the year thus far, Fox has a
larger lead. Hosts at Fox News have come under fire for downplaying
the coronavirus threat for weeks in the network's coverage. A
spokeswoman for Fox News had no comment on its coverage of the
Both networks have blown past MSNBC in the core demographic.
MSNBC, which is owned by NBCUniversal, a division of Comcast Corp.,
surged after the 2016 election, becoming a home for viewers seeking
fiery criticism of the Trump administration. A spokeswoman for
MSNBC declined to comment.
Fox News owner Fox Corp. and Wall Street Journal parent News
Corp share common ownership.
Before the pandemic, the CNN channel was expected to generate
about $1.7 billion in revenue this year, according to projections
from Kagan, a unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence, with ad
revenue expected to increase about 15% from last year to $667
million. An analyst for Kagan, Derek Baine, said he now expects
CNN's ad revenue could decrease in the double-digit percentage
range this year.
Many industry executives say the cuts to ad spending by
beleaguered businesses will be larger than those during the 2008
financial crisis or following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
"Huge chunks of the advertising market are going to disappear in
the second quarter," said Craig Moffett, an analyst at
MoffettNathanson, which analyzes publicly traded media and telecom
companies. The research firm estimates that ad revenue at Turner,
the division of WarnerMedia that includes CNN as well as TNT and
TBS, will decline by between 5.5% and 16% during a deep
Election-related ads are a CNN mainstay, but total U.S. ad
spending on the current presidential election fell sharply during
the last week of March to $4.8 million after reaching a high of
$119.8 million for the last week of February, according to
Advertising Analytics, an analytics firm that tracks political
Political ads are likely to bounce back, said John Link,
director of sales at Advertising Analytics. "I put the presidential
lull down to the fact that the field has been dwindled down to a
presumptive candidate," Mr. Link said. "I believe that you'll start
to see an uptick come May."
--Suzanne Vranica contributed to this article.
Write to Benjamin Mullin at Benjamin.Mullin@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 15, 2020 17:23 ET (21:23 GMT)
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