CNN’s Latest Primetime Gambit Has Been a Ratings Failure

·5 min read
Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero / The Daily Beast
Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero / The Daily Beast

Amid its worst ratings in over a decade, CNN recently sought to reinvent its primetime strategy. But that gambit to boost viewership looks like it has failed.

More than a year after firing its most-watched anchor Chris Cuomo over an ethics scandal involving his disgraced ex-governor brother, the cable-news pioneer has struggled to find a permanent replacement in the 9 p.m. time slot. Last month, the network decided to fill the pivotal hour with town-hall events and specials focusing on hot-button news topics, as well as interviews with prominent politicians and celebrities.

Since implementing that formula late last month, however, CNN has yet to see viewers embrace the new direction. In fact, CNN’s primetime specials have attracted a smaller audience than the network’s regular programming in that same time slot this year.

Since the start of the year, CNN has averaged 679,000 total viewers in the 9 p.m. time slot whenever Anderson Cooper, whose nightly program airs at 8 p.m., has anchored the hour. Prior to Cuomo’s move to primetime a few years ago, Anderson Cooper 360 was a two-hour news show. Additionally, 7 p.m. CNN anchor Erin Burnett has averaged an overall audience of 567,000 when filling in during the primetime slot. Cooper also has averaged 159,000 viewers in the key advertising 25-54 demographic during his 9 p.m. broadcasts, while Burnett has pulled in 114,000 in the demo.

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By comparison, the network’s special town-hall events that have aired in the 9 p.m. hour since late February have attracted only 429,000 total viewers and 101,000 in the key demographic. The hourlong events have centered on the East Palestine train disaster, the fentanyl crisis, a Q&A with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, and the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

CNN has also aired special reports about antisemitism, the Alex Murdaugh trial, and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, along with interviews of First Lady Jill Biden, HBO late-night host Bill Maher, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Those telecasts have brought in 509,000 viewers overall and a demo audience of 101,000.

Other than the Maher interview with anchor Jake Tapper, which drew 821,000 total viewers and 183,000 in the 25-54 demographic, none of the specials or town halls have matched the numbers brought in by Cooper or Burnett hosting the hour as a more conventional primetime broadcast.

When Cooper anchored the 9 p.m. hour on March 2, the only time the slot was filled with regular programming since late February, he attracted 882,000 viewers overall and 179,000 in the key demo.

Overall, the network’s specials in the 9 p.m. slot have averaged 482,000 total viewers and 101,000 in the 25-54 metric since the start of the year. The total viewership is 23 percent lower than CNN’s regular programming in the same hour, and a 29 percent drop in the advertising demographic.

“We have been experimenting out in the open for all of 2.5 weeks,” CNN spokesperson Matt Dornic said in a statement following publication of this article. “So despite being deemed ‘a failure’ by the Beast’s team of programming whizzes and the competitor who pitched this story, we’ll find the strength to power on.”

Since taking over for ousted CNN president Jeff Zucker last year, network chief Chris Licht has vowed to “seek to go a different way” at a time “where extremes are dominating cable news.” This has included parting ways with several on-air personalities seen as too partisan or controversial while completely revamping the network’s weekday lineup.

Despite the programming changes and shift to a more non-partisan “centrist” editorial direction—all amid rounds of layoffs—the network’s rating woes have only continued while CNN has dealt with controversy surrounding the shake-ups.

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CNN This Morning, which replaced the network’s long-running morning show New Day last fall, has yet to connect with audiences, drawing just 360,000 total viewers last month. On top of that, Don Lemon—who was moved from a solo primetime gig to co-anchoring a morning show with two other hosts—sparked outrage over sexist remarks about women in their “prime.” Amid the fallout, Licht briefly benched Lemon before announcing that the 56-year-old would undergo “formal training.”

It is still unclear whether CNN Primetime will continue to be largely devoted to special programming or if Licht will install a permanent host at some point. During last year’s midterm elections, CNN temporarily shifted Tapper—who hosts a mid-afternoon weekday program and the network’s flagship Sunday morning talk show—to 9 p.m. Despite speculation that he could take over the primetime hour for good, the veteran journalist soon returned to his normal time slot.

Licht has even floated the possibility in recent months of giving comedians and celebrities a chance at hosting the time slot. Having already decided to air Maher’s Friday night after-show broadcast on CNN, Licht reportedly considered NBA legend Charles Barkley, currently an analyst for Inside the NBA on TNT, to potentially fill the slot. Both Maher and Barkley work for CNN’s parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.

“Chris [Licht] is having conversations with dozens of culturally relevant individuals from the worlds of news, sports, entertainment and comedy,” a CNN spokesperson said at the time.

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