CNN leverages its nonpartisan coverage

Prior to the presidential election, viewers turned to cable news in record numbers, watching Keith Olbermann, Bill O'Reilly, and others deliberate the candidates, debates, and polls.

Prior to the presidential election, viewers turned to cable news in record numbers, watching Keith Olbermann, Bill O'Reilly, and others deliberate the candidates, debates, and polls.

Yet, now that the election is over, CNN says that it is planning to stay the course as the centrist cable news network, while Fox News and MSNBC are largely regarded as conservative and progressive broadcasters, respectively.

“It is a tremendous advantage to be the only nonpartisan cable news channel,” says Barbara Levin, CNN spokeswoman, via e-mail, “particularly during serious news times such as these, where viewers seek reliable and accurate information, not spin and ideology.”

Several media pros agree that the strategy could be successful for CNN, which reportedly lured 13.3 million viewers on election night and broke its own records in terms of viewers during the election cycle.

“It wasn't necessarily CNN's choice, but now, it has kind of been thrust upon them that they are going to be the down-the-middle, neutral, straight-news network,” says Jeff Bercovici, media blogger at Portfolio. “If they are smart, they will figure out a way to really use that to [the network's] advantage.”

While all networks are preparing for a drop in viewers and a shift in coverage away from politics, Levin notes, via e-mail, that viewers tuned in this election cycle because of important issues, such as the economy. She adds that CNN will aggressively cover those issues post-election.

Yet, during the transition season and beyond, not all audience members want the Olbermann-and-O'Reilly-like viewpoint shows that grew in popularity during this election season, Bercovici adds, saying that by keeping that in mind in its programming decisions, CNN can seize the advantage.

Liz Cox Barrett, writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, says, via e-mail, that this strategy “makes sense competitively” for CNN, because MSNBC and Fox News are making ratings inroads with their punditry. However, she adds that the network must base this strategy on solid reporting and investigation, not fancy bells and whistles – or election-night holograms.

Craig Brownstein, VP of media relations at Edelman, is also optimistic about the strategy's chances.

“It will be interesting to see how the audience shakes out,” he says. “This is a smart move for [CNN to stay down-the-middle] as the cable audience reaches some sort of post-election balance.”

However, there is some evidence that the embrace of partisan programming can lead to ratings success. According to the 2008 Zogby/Lear Center Survey on Politics and Entertainment, consumers tend to watch or read reports that they agree with, says Johanna Blakley, deputy director of research at The Norman Lear Center, a policy and research group at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

“They are trying to sell this product to an audience that thinks of itself as media savvy,” she says, noting that CNN was not a top choice of respondents. “[The viewers say], ‘I know that all the content I see on television is tainted by ideology. It is political and you can't get around that. So I might as well go to the news that reflects my politics.'”

Yet, Barrett says that she believes many viewers will choose CNN because they want quality journalism, as opposed to clever punditry and on-screen opinions.

“You always hear that news consumers in 2008 are looking to have their existing world views reinforced,” she says, via e-mail. “But I hope there's a market for just, good, solid reporting. I'm optimistic there is. I hope some TV news execs out there are similarly optimistic.”

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