Is CNN Blaming Viewers For The Channel's Lack Of Climate Coverage?

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

CNN president Jeff Zucker raised some eyebrows this week when, asked about the news channel's increasingly slim coverage of climate change, he commented the network hasn't "figured out how to engage the audience in that story in a meaningful way." He added: "When we do do those stories, there does tend to be a tremendous amount of lack of interest on the audience's part."

Zucker acknowledged that climate change "deserves more attention," but suggested that the issue isn't receiving that attention on his network because CNN needs the topic to generate ratings, or "interest," in order to receive more airtime.

I'm not sure I've ever heard an executive at a news organization speak so openly about what appears to be a company-wide decision to pay less attention to a completely legitimate news story because it doesn't generate ratings; because it's not good for business. For Zucker to suggest CNN doesn't cover a pressing public issue because it doesn't grab eyeballs goes against the basic tenet of journalism, which is, of course, to inform. CNN should be less concerned about engaging viewers and more concerned abut informing them.

Zucker's climate coverage comments seem especially odd given that he said in the same interview that his network's coverage of the Benghazi select committee would be driven by whether it is of "real news value"; he did not address whether such coverage would need to meet an "interest" threshold from the audience.   

I'm not a purist when it comes to cable news.  I understand CNN is a business and that increasingly it falls within ever-expanding sphere of the entertainment business. Cable news has changed dramatically over the last two decades, the scramble for the limited audience of viewers is fierce, and passive programming is not an option for commercial success. I get that the diet of cable news today includes large dollops of fatty foods buffeted by smaller servings of vegetables.

But suggesting you're not covering an extraordinarily important and possibly life-changing topic because viewers don't "engage"? That's wandering into dangerous ethical territory. What other dire topics is CNN shying away from for fear of boring its news consumers? Do CNN editorial meetings revolve around gauging which news topic will generate minutes-long spikes in the channel's ratings?

A CNN spokesperson did not respond to my request seeking data the channel has to back up Zucker's claim about climate change coverage producing "a tremendous amount of lack of interest." Research, by the way, indicates Americans are increasingly concerned about, and interested in, the topic.

Note that Zucker's comments come in the wake of sustained criticism of CNN's climate change coverage. The objections center around both in CNN's presentation of a false equivalency debate (i.e. Is climate change for real? Up next, Ann Coulter says no), and for largely failing to cover two recent historic reports that warned of grave and growing climate change dangers; reports that received far more coverage on CNN's news competitors.

And perhaps that's what is so troubling about Zucker's comments. They seem to be clear proof that CNN has cut back on its climate change coverage recently, which means Zucker wasn't speaking theoretically. The comments suggest a formal or informal directive exists inside CNN today stipulating that until the channel can figure out how to more actively "engage" viewers, climate change coverage gets scaled back, to the point where CNN all but ignores breaking, historic news on the subject.

From last month:

CNN devoted less than two minutes to a report by top international climate experts, who warned of hunger problems, coastal flooding and other calamitous impacts if climate change is left unchecked. The network's coverage stands in stark contrast to other cable news networks, which devoted an average of over 22 minutes to the report, and broadcast nightly news programs, some of which led with the report.

From May:

The news that an Antarctic ice sheet is disintegrating and could contribute to a dramatic rise in sea level was ignored on CNN, in contrast to other major television networks.... CNN U.S. failed to cover the story at all. Only CNN International covered the story in a segment that was simulcast on CNN U.S. at 3 a.m. on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, here's an often-overlooked fact about CNN's very profitable business model, and a fact that undercuts Zucker's suggestion that the channel can't afford to cover climate change and risk impairing its ratings and, presumably, its profits: Ratings don't define CNN. 

Fact: In 2012, CNN posted record profits (nearly $600 million) even though ratings were down precipitously.

"CNN as a whole can thrive financially even if its primetime stumbles," noted in 2010. "The dual revenue stream cable business model is strong enough to drive profits at a network, even if the programming isn't working."

The dual revenue streams referenced are advertising and subscription fees. Like all television outlets, CNN strives for big ratings, which allow it to charge advertisers the highest possible rates. In addition, cable carriers such as Cablevision and Comcast pay CNN a lucrative carriage fee (approximately 50 cents) for every subscriber who receive the news channel via cable boxes. Given the strength of CNN's brand for breaking news, the network has unusual leverage in securing those fees. (Try selling a cable lineup to your subscribers that doesn't include CNN.)

That, plus the fact that CNN International is booming, means CNN's primetime programming in the U.S. is responsible for just 10 percent of the company's overall revenues. So even if you buy Zucker's implication (and I don't) that climate change coverage drives down CNN's ratings, the inference that a ratings dip would mean big trouble at the news channel simply isn't accurate.

Climate change remains a generation-defining news issue. It's certainly not one that CNN should use a rating meters to determine its coverage.

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Climate Change
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