How CNN Can Restore Primetime

It may involve dismantling primetime as we know it.

CNN on March 8 aired an exclusive primetime interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky just as the war in Ukraine was heating up for a widely reported springtime offensive by Russia. Don’t be alarmed if you missed it. The Zelensky sit-down, and another with First Lady Jill Biden, broadcast during a week when the cable network posted its fourth-lowest 9 pm ratings since the Clinton administration.

What is going on at CNN? I’ve cautioned against rushing to judgment of the network or its new chairman, Christ Licht, since the Warner Bros. Discovery merger whose first anniversary is coming up on April 8. Massive mergers inevitably get messy. And messes, or more benign growing pains, take time to sort out. But the floundering performance of “CNN Primetime” since its February 22 debut makes me worry that CNN is more adrift than even some of its enthusiastic critics thought.

It’s especially discouraging given the appealing, to me anyway, premise of the primetime shakeup. One of Licht’s biggest goals at CNN is to move away from the personality-driven, star anchor model that many years ago came to dominate cable TV. That model, by cause or effect or both, coincided with a dramatic political and media fracturing in America and a nauseating coarsening of discourse.

Taking the wind out of increasingly specious and obnoxious anchors’ sails isn’t the only, or best, way to fix the problems with cable news, but it’s part of Licht’s bigger goal to iron out the partisan tenor at the network and bring it back to old-fashioned reporting, however unsexy that’s somehow come to sound.

It’s so far been a case of good intentions and lackluster execution. As Warner Bros. Discovery prepares for its first birthday, I have a couple of suggestions I’d offer Licht for turning things around.

Make the shows the stars.

CNN Primetime’s boldest departure from the norm is employing a rotating cast of guest anchors (including Charles Barkley and Gayle King) rather than seating the same marquee name behind a desk each night. I admire the willingness to try something new, but worry that the more general amorphousness of CNN Primetime needs tending to.

For starters, there´s the name itself, which is easily confused with its 10 pm lead-out program, CNN Tonight. Then there’s the problem brought by a revolving door of hosts, no matter how talented they are: an aimlessness of content. What stories does CNN Primetime want to tell? Which types of people, or mix of them, will it be talking to? Licht has a background in morning and late-night TV, which are often designed for frazzled or sleepy viewers. News programs need a sharper, more sustained focus.

Can we expect in-depth features on the day’s news topics (a la “60 Minutes”), straightforward news reporting (perhaps in the vein of Germany´s “Tagesschau”) or round table interviews (as on “Meet the Press”)?

All three of the shows mentioned above are institutions unto themselves. And while they certainly are or have been identified with big name anchors, they prove that the show can be the star. And that should prove to Licht that having an anchor’s steady hand to steer a program does not mean handing over the reins completely.

Redefine primetime

Streaming content has radically altered what were once prescribed audience viewing habits. Yet the nature of news, unlike scripted drama, means that people want to watch it before it very quickly gets old. That’s why news networks, including of course CNN, have struggled to make a dent with its own streaming platforms that often have a distinct B-team vibe.

Still, there’s been a noticeable recent shift in the viewing habits of loyal cable news watchers. As Michael M. Grynbaum wrote in the Times, ratings for afternoon shows starting between 4 and 7 pm on CNN (Erin Burnett, Jake Tapper), Fox News (“The Five”) and MSNBC (Ari Melber, Nicole Wallace) are catching up with or jumping those in the long sacrosanct primetime block. This is not because aging cable news diehards (the median viewer is pushing 70) are going to bed earlier. In fact, Grynbaum notes that the hours those viewers spent watching streaming content doubled between December 2020 and December 2022, the biggest jump for any demographic.

So, they want to watch news, but are filling the post-dinner time with non-news content. This development offers some exciting opportunities to experiment. It’s long been seen as a humbling demotion for primetime anchors to move to, say, drama-filled morning gigs. Maybe that doesn’t have to be the case anymore.

Why not see how Wallace or Melber fare in primetime now that they’ve built audiences earlier in the day? (I’m aware this is risky, as was recently proven by Tapper’s move back to 4 pm from the 9 pm slot). Is the idea of primetime so antiquated that the ad-driven economics of the business should be reevaluated?

With CNN already dismantling the creaky primetime formula by doing away with permanent hosts, maybe they could go a step further and program more adventurous content then—perhaps something along the lines of Navalny, the documentary CNN co-produced with HBO Films that just won an Oscar.

Warner Bros. Discover CEO David Zaslav has been supportive of Licht and encouraged staffers to look beyond ratings as CNN rethinks its programming. But that patience won’t last forever, and it shouldn’t in light of the network’s current misdirection. Licht is capable of turning this situation around, and we should all be rooting for him to do it.