CNN is suffering a credibility crisis as viewership for the once-proud network continues to crater with no apparent plan in place to fix things anytime soon, according to media watchdogs and insiders.
CNN’s audience shriveled in the second quarter of 2019, averaging only 541,000 total viewers, less than half Fox News Channel’s 1.3 million average. But CNN struggled even more during the primetime hours of 8-11 p.m. ET, finishing as the fifteenth most-watched network on basic cable behind networks such as TLC, Investigation Discovery and the Hallmark Channel. CNN averaged a dismal 761,000 primetime viewers while FNC averaged 2.4 million.
The Hill media guru Joe Concha told Fox News that CNN's freefall may not be slowing.
“The numbers warrant concern, yes. Q2 was a particularly news-rich quarter highlighted by the release of the Mueller report and all the aftermath and controversy following it, plus the launch of several high-profile Democratic candidacies including Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg to propel 2020 coverage into high gear,” Concha said. “It may only get worse in Q3 given the numbers we’re already seeing.”
CNN did not immediately respond when asked for comment.
CNN started off the third quarter with “the network’s lowest average since 2015” when it comes to primetime viewers among the key demographic of adults age 25-54, according to TVNewser. But the network has extended various contributors through the election, indicating that its apparent anti-Trump programming strategy will remain in place for at least the duration of the president’s first term.
“You know the answer,” a longtime CNN employee said when asked if staffers are panicked about the ratings decay before declining further comment.
Another current CNN employee told Fox News that there is widespread concern about the network’s ratings problem, but high-profile hosts such as Anderson Cooper remain unfazed.
“The people that are concerned – it’s certainly not the anchors who have lucrative contracts – it’s the people among the lower levels, such as producers and show bookers."
“The people that are concerned – it’s certainly not the anchors who have lucrative contracts – it’s the people among the lower levels, such as producers and show bookers,” the employee said.
A third current staffer told Fox News that CNN “is clearly doing something wrong if the ratings are like this,” before asking, “So why don’t we try something different?”
Cable news viewership has declined in general as more and more consumers cut the cord in favor of OTT streaming services, but CNN’s losses are overwhelming. The network lost 18 percent of its audience compared to the second quarter of last year. CNN also dropped a whopping 38 percent of primetime viewers among the key demo.
“Losing nearly 40 percent of an already-third place audience must be a primary topic in internal meetings, with immediate remedies not readily apparent."
“Losing nearly 40 percent of an already third-place audience must be a primary topic in internal meetings, with immediate remedies not readily apparent,” Concha said.
CNN’s most popular show, "Cuomo Prime Time," averaged only 910,000 viewers. Fourteen Fox News programs and 10 MSNBC programs attracted larger audiences.
Reporter-turned-banker Porter Bibb is surprised parent company AT&T hasn't made any changes. "My guess is that senior management is more concerned about the launch of HBO Max than CNN, at least for the moment," he said.
Sagging ratings weren’t the only negative headlines generated by CNN during the second quarter, as the network reduced its headcount days after publically declaring there wouldn’t be mass layoffs.
A CNN spokesperson told Fox News on May 7 that reports of looming layoffs were a “crazy rumor,” but staffers were shocked when members of the network’s Atlanta-based staff who covered health care were shown the door only two weeks later.
CNN also saw over 100 employees accept a voluntary buyout option, losing bureau chiefs and award winners in the process while the network moved into elaborate new New York City digs.
“My guess is that senior management is more concerned about the launch of HBO Max than CNN, at least for the moment."
CNN began broadcasting in May from the network’s ritzy new facility in the Hudson Yards area on the West Side of Manhattan. The brand-new, state-of-the-art headquarters is part of a luxurious complex that also features condominiums that start at $4.3 million, high-end restaurants and stores such as Cartier, Rolex, Louis Vuitton and Neiman Marcus.
The second quarter also saw the release of CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s anti-Trump book. Before its June release, one current CNN employee told Fox News that Acosta might not be the right person to cover Trump’s White House these days.
“Jim Acosta is, a lot of times, asking the right questions but it doesn’t always need to be about him and his grandstanding,” the CNN staffer said. “People get tired of it. Acosta is supposed to be a correspondent reporting the facts but you can’t tell the difference between him and a paid pundit.”
MSNBC’s recent Democratic presidential primary debate attracted a large audience, and CNN is set to host its own version later this month. The event would typically be a reason for optimism, but CNN announced on Monday that opinion host Don Lemon would a moderator, raising eyebrows in the process as respected journalists such as Erin Burnett and Poppy Harlow remain on the sideline.
Debate moderators are historically straight-news journalists, as opposed to partisan pundits, but CNN’s decision mirrors NBC’s strategy to allow Rachel Maddow to moderate last month’s Democratic debate. CNN has continued to label Lemon an “anchor” despite him spouting anti-Trump opinions on a regular basis.
Conservative strategist Chris Barron told Fox News that CNN’s decision is “a disservice to voters all across the political spectrum” because Lemon – whose beleaguered primetime show has contributed to the network's ratings crisis -- is so open about his own views.
DePauw University professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall recently told Fox News that Lemon is no longer a news anchor in the traditional sense because of his partisan rhetoric.
“He is a host of an opinion-driven show in which his opinions are front and center. Thus, he is a host rather than a news anchor,” McCall said. “His show does discuss news topics, but it is not designed as an objective news show.”
In recent memory, Lemon has compared Trump to Adolf Hitler, then claimed he “didn’t mean” to compare the president and Hitler. He has also called Trump a “racist,” a “fraud,” “con man,” questioned whether or not the State of the Union should air on a delay to avoid “propaganda," declared that he wouldn’t shake the president’s hand and questioned Trump’s mental fitness.
“To pretend he’s not an opinion host is lunacy,” a CNN employee told Fox News.
Lemon has also suggested Trump doesn’t do enough work, speculated on whether or not the president lies about his weight, tied Trump to the college admissions cheating scheme and took a shot at Trump as he was giving his colleague Chris Cuomo a brief tour of his new studio, suggesting that the president can't afford such a lavish space since he isn't a "real billionaire."
One certainty is that Lemon wasn’t selected to lift the debate’s viewership totals. Lemon’s “CNN Tonight” finished the second quarter of 2019 as the 35th most-watched show on cable news.