Wednesday, February 27, 2002

CNN's Woes

CNN floated a trial balloon recently about charging a subscription fee for access to Let's see: is free, is free, is $29 per annum (and a good value, that), is free, is free, is free (and includes an AP ticker), is free, is free, is free, is free. Think you can live without Think you'll miss anything?

But you can see their point. In the pre-web days, CNN provided a real service. It was, primarily, a news gathering operation that was always on the air. It enabled people to watch and catch up on "the news" at the their convenience. During the Gulf War, it enabled people to see the news unfold in real time. And it was a monopoly provider of this service; which is to say, no one else (on television) was doing it 24/7. Those were the days.

Today, there are two other cable television news outlets, but if you really want to know what's going on, you fire up the web. Everybody has their own "go-to" sites; mine are and About the last place I'd "go to" would be CNN TV, unless it was a disaster, a terrorist attack or an outbreak of chemical or biological warfare and there was some real or imagined advantage to seeing a live feed from the scene. I suppose I might go to, but if they charged me one penny for the privilege, I'd never go there, as a matter of principle. I already pay CNN a fee through my DirectTV system (for CNN and CNN Headlines News and CNNfn). Why would I ever pay them twice for the same stuff on the web (and be bombarded with all that AOL synergy for my troubles)?

This is the problem that confronts the new management of CNN. CNN's best customers from the pre-web days have deserted the network for the web. To make matters worse, the news gathering business (which is CNN's primary function) suffers from over-capacity (all-news radio, other cable television news networks, established news organizations with web sites and even infomediary services like Yahoo!). About the only advantage CNN maintains is its reach, but that has been diminished somewhat by AOL-ordered cutbacks. And if you really want richness and reach, you simply can't beat the web. That's how the web changes everything. It eliminates (almost) the tradeoff between richness and reach.

To further complicate matters, Roger Ailes and his team at Fox News Channel (for whom I used to do consulting work and for whom I worked on the Election Night Decision Desk in 1998 and 2000) have chosen not to compete with CNN on newsgathering (taking it as a given that this part of the business has become thoroughly commoditized), but rather on analysis, commentary, opinion and special events. Once you move from the business of news gathering and presentation to the business of analysis, commentary, opinion and special events, you dilute CNN's strategic advantage. They have their talking heads, you have yours.

And at that point, you're out of the game of news "gathering" and into the game of news "programming." Which is where the game now sits. Ailes has targeted the blue states as his growth engines. CNN is sort of feeling its way around the new playing field. They hired Paula Zahn (and that worked out, from a ratings point of view). They hired Connie Chung (that won't work out). Their franchise player is Aaron Brown. Duncan the Wonderhorse he is not.

There's been a lot written about CNN's uncertainty and "mis-steps" in the new environment. But it's not at all clear what Walter Isaacson and his management team should do. It's not in CNN's DNA to become a "talk show" network, which is the tactical genius and strategic limitation of the Fox News Channel. It's not in CNN's DNA to be a celebrity news network (Larry King notwithstanding). CNN "analysis," "commentary" and "opinion" isn't nearly as interesting, or passionate or smart as what is now available on the web 24/7. And as the blogger revolution spreads and major news organizations jump into the Blogging Game, the analysis/commentary/opinion space will get even more competitive.

So they're caught in what used to be called a disintermediating shift. The best they can probably do is just muddle through until they figure out a way to recapture at least part of the strategic high ground they once held. That way will necessarily require a major role for So the idea of restricting access to the website (by charging a subscription fee) is deeply stupid. Worth a trial balloon, but nothing more.


According to Drudge, CNN is set to sign up James Carville and Paul Begala as hosts of a revamped Crossfire. Carville would host "from the left" one week, Begala the following three. Columnists Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson would alternate hosting duties "from the right." The show will be expanded to one hour, says Drudge, and be set in front of a live audience at George Washington University. Try to contain your excitement.