CNN founder Ted Turner once said that he wanted the network to be the news source “that everybody turned to in times of a crisis.” And for the most part, it’s been just that. From the Gulf War coverage to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, from Middle East revolutions to U.S. presidential elections, CNN has consistently beaten its cable news competitors when covering breaking, hard news stories. But for a 24/7 news network, relying solely on global events, natural disasters, and coups d’etat isn’t always easy. If you want ratings, sometimes you need a little sizzle, even on a slow news day.
CNN proved that last week with its coverage of the stranded Carnival cruise ship. Its ceaseless, rigorous reporting on what was essentially inconvenienced cruise passengers without working toilets was easy to mock (and many people did), but the results were nothing to laugh at. CNN’s ratings averaged 1.2 million viewers for the cruise ship coverage, a 74 percent increase from its recent prime time numbers.
For off-news days, here are five of CNN’s secrets for attracting viewership.
1. Drown a Story in Reporters
According to the Wall Street Journal, CNN was sending “a team of roughly 400 reporters, cameramen and crew” to cover the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April of 2011. The Journal soon retracted the story, claiming the 400 number was “erroneous information provided by the cable network” and that only 125 CNN employees were assigned to the wedding. This was corrected yet again, with CNN claiming that a mere 50 domestic staffers would be in London for the main event. It’s debatable whether CNN never intended to send 400 journalist to cover a wedding, or if they were “shamed from doing so,” as the Huffington Post claimed, by media accounts that found the very idea hilarious or disgraceful (and sometimes both.) But even a staff of 50 was arguably excessive, considering that CNN had also recently assigned 50 staffers to cover the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan.
Ratings result: By the official estimates of Barbara Levin, vice president of communications at CNN, the network pulled in 995,000 for the total day and a healthy 340,000 in the 25-54 age group. The most impressive numbers came between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m., during the actual wedding. CNN averaged 1.66 million viewers during that six-hour period, which according to the New York Times was the network’s “biggest audience since the day after the presidential election in 2008.”
2. Be the News Expert on People Getting Trapped In Confined Spaces
In 1987, a toddler named Jessica McClure fell into a well in Midland, Tex. “CNN had the advantage over the other networks,” former CNN staffer John Baker claimed in his 2009 CNN tell-all, Chicken Noodle News. “Interrupting paid-for programming could be expensive, and interrupting a soap opera could turn your audience against you. CNN didn’t have those restraints.”
When 33 Chilean miners became trapped in a collapsed mine in 2010, CNN upped its game on competitors Fox News and MSNBC, finding innovative ways to fill the time. On its second day of following the story, CNN produced a lifesize replica of the rescue capsule, and Jonathan Mann demonstrated how the miners might be rescued. As CNN anchor Kyra Phillips said of her network’s latest coverage of people trapped in confined spaces: “This is the stuff that we do best. … This is our brand.”
Ratings result: Off the charts. According to the New York Times, “During the last minutes of [Baby Jessica’s] rescue, 3.1 million households were tuned to CNN alone.” And during the Chilean miner rescue coverage, 3.998 million viewers were tuned to CNN when the first miner was pulled out (dwarfing MSNBC’s audience of 1.083 million). CNN also attracted the biggest chunk of the 25-to-54 demo, with 1.4 million viewers (compared with MSNBC’s 279,000).
3. Put Your Reporters in Harm’s Way
Before Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard last October, CNN’s severe-weather expert Chad Myers prepared his troops for the worst. “This is our Super Bowl,” he said at the time about CNN’s hurricane coverage. “We have people who will be in the way of this storm, and people will probably get hurt.” Ali Velshi, CNN’s chief business correspondent, came close to being a casualty when he reported from the heart of the storm, on the streets of Atlantic City, as he was battered with wind and rain. His refusal to take shelter, even at the request of Atlantic City mayor Lorenzo Langford (who reminded him that “self-preservation” was important), managed to be both fascinating and terrifying. As fashion bloggers The Fug Girls tweeted during the coverage, “Dear CNN, please let Ali Velshi GO INSIDE BEFORE HE BLOWS AWAY AND DIES.”
Ratings result: According to CNN’s Levin, the network’s coverage of Hurricane Sandy brought in a total of 1.3 million viewers for the day—a little more than half of the reported 2.035 million viewers who tuned in for Sandy reports on the Weather Channel, a network with “weather” in its name.
4. Interview Possibly Unstable People
If CNN host Piers Morgan actually wanted to have a “proper debate” about gun laws, as he claimed in early January, it probably wasn’t the best idea to invite Texas radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones as a guest on his show. But if his intention was to create compelling television, with lots of shouting and wild accusations and not-so-thinly-veiled threats, then mission accomplished. Jones started screaming, “1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms.” In February 2011, Morgan scored a rare live interview with Charlie Sheen, who was in the midst of his “I’m a Warlock” public meltdown. As Morgan hopefully informed Sheen before the broadcast, “The whole world’s going to watch this.”
Ratings result: The 2011 interview with Sheen gave Morgan some of his biggest numbers in years, with a viewership of 1.35 million for the hour and 561,000 in the 25-to-54 demo. According to CNN’s Levin, the three airings of the Alex Jones shouting match (9 p.m., midnight, 3 a.m.) for the Jan. 7 broadcast brought in a collective audience of 3,638 million, with 1,172 million in the 25-54 demo. Not bad, especially considering that last May, Morgan was averaging 39,000 viewers, CNN’s worst prime time ratings in 21 years.
5. Incorporate Brazen Sexual Attacks
When CNN first hired Kathy Griffin to co-host its New Year’s Eve coverage with Anderson Cooper in 2007, it didn’t make much sense. A comedienne famous for crude comedy hardly seemed like a perfect fit for a network built on the motto, “The Most Trusted Name in News.” True to her reputation, Griffin was outrageous and occasionally offensive. In 2008, she asked if she could “get a pap smear from Dr. Sanjay Gupta” and got into a screaming match with a heckler. The following year, she dropped the f-bomb on live television. In 2011, she stripped down to her bra and underwear. This year, she simulated oral sex with co-host Anderson Cooper.
Was the outrageous behavior just a ploy for ratings? If you believe Griffin, it might’ve been. “Every year Anderson is like, ‘please do something really offensive, please,’” she said in an interview with Conan O’Brien. “And I am like, ‘OK, whatever, Anderson.’” Not everybody was amused. Some, like Baltimore Sun critic David Zurawik, were outraged by the “shock-jock double-entendre crap.”
Ratings result: CNN has never had ABC’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve numbers (13.3 million viewers last year), but it has done increasingly well against competitors such as Fox News Channel’s All American New Years. In 2011, CNN was neck and neck with FNC, 1.605 million to Fox’s 1.661 million. In 2012, CNN easily dominated with 2.3 million viewers, trouncing the competition in the 25-54 demo, with 807,000 to FNC’s 305,000 and MSNBC’s 142,000. The cable news public has spoken, and it likes sexual pantomime.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Bloomberg BusinessWeek website.)