The latest rough patch for CNN illustrates the two contradictions at the network's heart.
In a brutal time for the news business, CNN is one of the few media organizations thriving while its most visible part in the United States — prime-time on the flagship network — is hurting. The company has built its brand on nonpartisan reporting, while CNN's audience tilts Democratic as much or more as Fox News Channel's audience is Republican.
CNN's average prime-time audience was third behind Fox and msnbc during October, and it was even eclipsed by sister network HLN among younger viewers, according to the Nielsen Co. Perhaps more ominous, CNN finished well behind Fox when big news was breaking — Election Night and the Fort Hood massacre. Big stories usually sent viewers flocking to CNN.
(Msnbc.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)
Prime-time success isn't a new problem in a place that has long lived and died by the news cycle, to which former hosts such as Aaron Brown, Connie Chung and Paula Zahn can attest. It seems more acute because CNN's younger rivals were faster in figuring out a way to make appointment viewing at night.
"We sometimes scratch our heads and wonder, 'Why can't they figure this out?'" said former CNN correspondent Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communication and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, describing his talks with another old CNN hand on his faculty.
Msnbc's Keith Olbermann, whose reruns often beat Anderson Cooper's first-run newscast on CNN, mocked his rival for trafficking in news rather than analysis at night: "CNN seems to still think it is the primary source for its viewers, that they know nothing until they tune in. This is, ever increasingly, nonsensical."
At CNN, they suggest critics take a narrow view of what it does.
The network could cast aside Cooper, Larry King and Campbell Brown for opinionated analysis and probably see its ratings go up, said Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide.
The benefit for one arm of the company isn't worth the potential damage to others, he said.
CNN has built its business — encompassing international networks and wholesale news reports, mobile device services, a Web site, a wire service to print publications and radio — around the notion that it is delivering nonpartisan, straight news reporting, he said. The company has shown double-digit growth for the past few years and is on pace to continue. It invests by hiring more personnel, and this month opening a new production facility in Abu Dhabi.
"People hear what's being said and it's branded CNN and (they say), 'OK, that's news. That's nonpartisan, that's factual, it's timely," Walton said. "That's what we want to deliver around the world. We compete against a lot more than Fox and msnbc."
The rising fortunes of HLN means the company makes money off opinion, too. One of the reasons that network's name was changed from CNN Headline News was to avoid having CNN's name associated with that type of programming.
Of the flagship network's sagging fortunes, Walton said, "It matters to us. Trust me, it matters. We want all of our networks to grow their audiences. But the fact is, (CNN) is a vibrant, healthy company that's growing in an industry where we're pretty much one of one."
A wide middle to conquer?
Msnbc's move to the left and Fox's ownership of the right would, theoretically, give CNN a wide middle to conquer. The problem is, that middle might be more inclined to watch Tom DeLay on "Dancing With the Stars" than on "Larry King Live."
Statistically, CNN's audience is far from nonpartisan.
Of people who say their main source of news is CNN, 46 percent identify themselves as Democrats and 13 percent as Republicans, according to a July survey by the Pew Research Center (the rest say they're independent or don't identify themselves politically). The same study found that Fox's main source audience was 38 percent Republican and 18 percent Democratic.
To a certain degree, it stands to reason: If so many Republicans find Fox a comfortable home, there are fewer remaining for CNN, particularly in a country where Democrats have an enrollment edge.
One-third of news viewers questioned by Pew this fall said they didn't perceive CNN as advancing an ideology, more than Fox (24 percent) or msnbc (27 percent). Still, 37 percent of those questioned view CNN as liberal, and 11 percent as conservative.
Liberals suspicious of Dobbs
It wasn't always this way. In a pre-Fox world, many on the right saw CNN as a good alternative to the broadcast networks, said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center. They loved "Crossfire," he said.
But conservatives began to identify CNN with President Bill Clinton, in part because a president is a natural time-killer for a network on 24 hours a day, he said. They believe conservative voices are weak and outnumbered on CNN.
"Could they claim to be in the middle?" Graham asked. "I think they could. I don't think they're doing it."
Liberals had regarded CNN with some suspicion because of Lou Dobbs and his anti-illegal immigration efforts, said Karl Frisch of Graham's liberal counterpart Media Matters. That was before Dobbs announced on his show Wednesday that he was leaving CNN.
What CNN needs is to find a way to bring the passion to stories that its rivals bring to arguments, said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief and now professor at George Washington University.
"Will people sit down in the evening and find news reporting interesting?" Walton asked. "That's the question, really."
CNN is still searching for the answer.