Saturday, March 18, 2023

CNN’s New Prime-Time Is Off to a Slow Start

Chris Licht

CNN’s new chairman, Chris Licht, debuted a novel experiment last month to revive his network’s flagging prime-time ratings, betting that viewers would tune in for a mix of exclusive interviews and specials dedicated to hot-button topics like fentanyl abuse and the war in Ukraine.

However, The NY Times reports viewers have had other ideas.

Since Mr. Licht’s 9 p.m. experiment, “CNN Primetime,” began airing several times a week on Feb. 22, viewership has fallen below what the network was drawing in the time slot just a few months ago.

David Zaslav
At 9 p.m. on March 8, more Americans watched “Homicide Hunter: The Man With No Face” on the Investigation Discovery cable network than CNN’s exclusive interview with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Two days earlier, an afternoon broadcast of “Ancient Aliens” on the History Channel drew a bigger audience than a 9 p.m. interview with the first lady, Jill Biden.

Last week, when the network aired the Biden and Zelensky interviews, as well as a town hall with Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, CNN delivered its fourth-lowest 9 p.m. weekly ratings in 24 years.

Licht has retained the firm support of his boss, David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, which acquired CNN last year. On a visit to CNN’s Manhattan offices this week, Zaslav delivered a endorsement of Licht’s vision for the network, urging the staff to try out new ideas — “ratings be damned.”

“We’re trying to figure out what is the best CNN,” Mr. Zaslav said, according to a transcript of his remarks obtained by The New York Times. “What are the stories we should be telling? What’s the right balance?”

Also, CNN generated plenty of buzz when it announced it would be airing Bill Maher's "Overtime" segments on Fridays, but did they generate viewers? Not really. 

In late January, CNN boss Chris Licht revealed to the Los Angeles Times that his network scooped the long-running YouTube extension to HBO's "Real Time" and would air on Fridays nights after Maher's program. Maher's fans otherwise have to wait until Saturday morning before seeing the segment online. 

CNN has shed a whopping 47% of its viewers in the 11:30-11:44 p.m. time slot when "Overtime" has aired since January, according to Nielsen Research Data. The network lost an additional 58% in the key advertiser-targeted 25-54 demo during that same time period. 

Maher's segments during Friday's "CNN Tonight" have averaged just 368,000 total viewers and only 74,000 in the key demo from February to early March. That's less than half Maher's actual audience, which averaged 782,000 total viewers during that same period with an audience that pays the HBO premium while CNN is broadly available on basic cable.

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