ANALYSIS: Media Watch - Ratings war, unspoken truth behind CNN'ssexy Paula Zahn ads

If you didn't see it, you weren't alone. CNN's ads that promoted

newly acquired anchor Paula Zahn as "sexy" while accompanied by the

sound of what some said was a zipper were short lived - airing only a

dozen or so times. Even so, the ads proved highly controversial,

prompting plenty of discussion in the media, with practically none of it

favorable to the world-renowned cable network.

Reaction to the ad even included ridicule. Rival Fox News Channel

(January 7) introduced a segment on the ad by saying, "We are not making

this up." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (January 9) started its coverage

of the incident by asking if CNN's promotions department had been

drinking. Comments such as these were not meant to take away from Zahn's

looks, but they were simply expressing surprise that a network as

respectable as CNN would stoop to advertising her looks as a reason to

watch her news program.

CNN was regularly depicted as red-faced over the incident. CNN

executives were widely quoted denouncing the ad, stating that it had

been a mistake to broadcast it, and that it had not received clearance

from anyone outside the promotions department. CNN Chairman Walter

Isaacson was widely quoted as saying, "It was a major blunder by our

promotions department. I was so outraged, and so was Paula, who has

spent 20 years proving her credibility day in and day out." The

Associated Press carried his comments in a January 8 article that was

picked up by newspapers across the country.

But it was reaction to the ad from outside CNN that was perhaps most

interesting, including speculation as to why CNN would run an ad like

that. Many articles observed that CNN was trying to loosen up its image,

while several of those went even further in their analysis, identifying

CNN's heated ratings war with Fox as the principle reason for wanting to

become flashier.

The New York Post (January 8) called the ad "a wacky attempt to stave

off the ratings onslaught of rival Fox News Network" and then further

remarked, "CNN has been tarting up its looks for over a year due to

falling ratings and aging demographics. Many senior correspondents have

been put out to pasture, replaced with younger, prettier faces."

Interestingly, columnist Maureen Dowd of The New York Times (January 8)

observed that perhaps one of the main reasons the ad was so

controversial was that it actually addressed a previously unspoken

truth. "CNN made a terrible gaffe over the weekend and told a terrific

truth. It was refreshing to see somebody finally spit out what we all

know, but what the networks go to ludicrous lengths to deny: They hire

and promote stars based on looks and sex appeal."

There was also debate about whether being called sexy is a good or bad

thing. Some anchors said they'd be flattered to be called sexy, while

others said everyone should just lighten up. But the consensus seemed to

be that while being called sexy is one thing, it's a different thing

altogether for an anchor of a serious news program to be actively

promoted as sexy. Between political correctness and journalistic

integrity, the event seems to have blown up in CNN's face. It looks like

it's back to the drawing board for how to better compete against


Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found


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