Thursday, June 09, 2005

CNN: Chock Full Of Assholes

Both The Carpetbagger and CJR commented today about a possible change for the better regarding CNN and their usually egregious news coverage. Apparently, CNN might be trying to push towards real news again. What in the hell took them so long?

As far as news concerns go, CNN was waaay off the boat. We all know it. They haven't been in the news business for years. They traded that in for a spot in the advertising/cable subscription business. That's what their focus is: Not news, but profits. I think that's totally wrong and incredibly dangerous for America and the world; but they never asked for my opinion. They just went ahead and did it.

But here's the thing: Even from a business perspective, they were also getting it wrong.

Now, I'm a business guy. I've a Bachelor in Business Administration, but I was mainly an accounting guy and only learned enough in those other business classes to get my A, and little else (don't ask what I thought about non-business classes). And it's been a few years since I've taken those classes. But I still recall enough of my marketing classes to know that CNN's been getting this stuff wrong for some time.

Bad Business Model

And their problem is simple: They were trying to replicate what their competitor was doing; rather than relying on their original product. There's nothing necessarily wrong with new or failing businesses positioning themselves by copying a competitor's success. But it doesn't always make sense, especially not for a once-dominant company whose product is significantly different than their competitor's. It's something you do out of desperation, not a choice you freely make when your marketshare dips. It was like curing a hangnail by lobbing off the finger.

By copying Fox's model, they abandoned their old brand identity of objective, exciting news from around the world. It didn't happen overnight, so it was imperceptible to most people; but it most surely happened. They weren't trying to out-Fox Fox, but they did believe that they could push in that direction and skim off part of it.

But it wasn't just a political slanting. That's the most apparent, but they really got out of the news business all together. They were pushing into the lucrative talk-show world. Not just in talk-show segments, but in everything. Every story became more about what opinion-makers said about it, than what the actual story was. Facts are hard to come by, but as we all know, opinions are like assholes. Everyone's got one, they make a mess of everything, and they won't shut-up. And CNN was chock full of opinions.

And it should be noted that one important factor in this is that real journalism is dependent on real stories. So if news is slow, ratings suffer. So CNN just figured out a way of correcting that; by inventing their own news. Every news story can be treated like a Big News story; you just have to find the angle. And their favorite stories became tabloid journalism about famous people gone bad (OJ, Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart) and tabloid journalism about formerly unfamous people who they made famous (Terry Schiavo, Atlanta Hostage Lady, Runaway Bride). And we can't forget the Pope. No story was too small, just as long as they could make up their own facts.

But the main thing was that they were trying to spice up their product by following Fox's talk-show formatting and soft-sell of the Whitehouse Agenda. They already had their newsroom bonafides in order. They were just going for the icing. Or so they thought.

New Coke

And all of this goes against basic marketing principles. If you're losing market-share to a competitor, becoming a lesser version of that competitor is unlikely to help. Take New Coke, for example. Coke was losing market-share, and decided to replace their old product with one that was more like Pepsi. And it was a major blunder. It wasn't necessarily that people didn't like the new Coke. But they loved the identity of the original Coke; more so than the replacement.

And beyond that, if people like Pepsi, why should they buy something that is like Pepsi? There's nothing wrong necessarily with trying to branch out with new products, but it's always dangerous to completely replace your main product with a competitor's taste-alike.

And there are lessons to be learned from the New Coke thing. First off, there's this bit from Wikipedia:
Before New Coke's introduction in 1985, Coca-Cola had been losing market share primarily to Pepsi. Although the reason was originally thought to be Pepsi's sweeter taste, a major force in the shift of market share was due to the merger between PepsiCo and Frito-Lay. PepsiCo was able to take advantage of Frito-Lay's highly developed retail distribution system to leverage more shelf space at supermarkets and other food retailers. With more shelf space available, sale specials were common for Pepsi products. Price, not loyalty, was the motivating factor for most retail consumers, and Pepsi gained substantial market share as a result.

And I agree with that exactly. In an attempt to replicate what they saw to be Pepsi's advantage (sweetness), Coke seriously damaged their own product and image. And their solution did nothing to fix their competitor's true advantage, which had little to do with Coke. Sometimes, your competitor just has advantages that you just don't have. You may act like the next Bill Gates, but you're unlikely to have much success with it.


And so it is with Fox and CNN. There are many many reasons why Fox has become more successful than CNN. But CNN just can't use those reasons to their advantage.

For example, opinion shows are more popular with Fox because Fox doesn't care about real news. To Fox, current news is just the backdrop they use to discuss their on-going storylines of Bush's Godliness and the Liberal's Destructive Agenda. But it's really all about the opinions. And because they select their news stories based upon those pre-conceived opinions, the entire channel is essentially one big propaganda show. And they're selling this to people who want to hear this specific propaganda. That is Fox's brand identity, and they use it well.

But Fox already has all of those people, and none of them want Fox-lite. Especially as the propaganda-minded Fox viewers are the type who will be outraged by stories that don't fit within that preset storyline. It's either all or nothing with these people. You either got them or you don't. Which was ok before Fox came along. But if they have a choice between getting a mixed bag of good and bad news from CNN, versus getting all good news from Fox; the choice is clear. They'll pick fantasyland.

And so CNN can't possibly compete with that. First off, they don't believe in propaganda. Hell, they probably don't even realize that Fox is selling propaganda. CNN might slant their coverage so that it doesn't seem so politically-motivated against conservatives, but they won't outright pimp for Bush. And they're certainly not biased politically. They'd actually have to care about politics in order to be biased about it. And they don't care about. They're just looking for another interesting way to fill a 24-hour news slot. So CNN doesn't have the pre-packaged flavor that draws the Fox viewers.

But secondly, CNN was known for news. That's what they were about. Not talking heads speculating about whether people should pay for their own manhunts. They reported facts. But facts are poison to talk-show opinions. They just get in the way of good arguments and slow everything down. They're things that "blowhards" like Krugman use when they're "stifling debate". What's next, that we actually hold these people accountable for what they say?? A good debate shouldn't be hampered by facts, so CNN got rid of them. And so by adopting the opinionated talk-show format, they were forced to dump the very thing that made them successful: Hard-Core News.

But hopefully this recent activity isn't just a fluke, and they'll get back to their original product. The dumbed-down news they've been offering is just an insult. And perhaps the New Coke lesson will apply in another way. After Coke re-introduced "Classic" Coke, it became more popular than ever. Maybe CNN can benefit from a similar effect upon returning to a real news format. People won't take it for granted anymore, and will come back to it in droves.

I'd like it if they did it because they care about the news. But I'll accept it if they just do it to improve business. Everyone needs a niche, and god knows nobody else is filling the hardcore news niche. The world is only big enough for one Walmart. We need to have Macy's too.

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