CNN in crisis as viewers switch to partisan rivals

CNN, the pioneering 24-hour news channel, is considering an overhaul of its schedule after haemorrhaging viewers in its core US market.

The broadcaster, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of its launch by the media mogul Ted Turner on 1 June, has lost almost half its prime-time viewers in the past year, according to the latest figures.

Rupert Murdoch's right-wing alternative, Fox News, has galloped further ahead of CNN in the ratings, and is also threatening to undermine CNN's lead in the amount it can charge advertisers for access to its lucrative young, affluent viewers.

The poor ratings performance raises questions about the wisdom of CNN's strategy to position itself as a neutral and high-minded alternative to the politically partisan broadcasting of its rivals. In primetime, Fox News is home to the right-wingers Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck, while MSNBC broadcasts shows from the liberal icons Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow.

"One of the few questions left about cable news is whether a channel attempting to build its brand around neutral reporting and balanced conversation can succeed," says Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Pew Research Centre's centre for excellence in journalism, in its latest report on the industry. "The medium became noticeably more partisan in tone in 2009, adding ideological talk-show hosts to primetime and shedding dissenting voices."

CNN's most famous prime-time show, Larry King Live, lost 43 per cent of its viewers in the first three months of this year, compared to the first quarter of 2009, as the audience shrank from 1.34 million to 771,000. Other shows were down similar amounts. Fox News' most-watched show, The O'Reilly Factor, averages 3.65 million viewers.

On some nights in February, CNN fell to fifth place among cable news channels, eclipsed not just by Fox News and MSNBC but also by its sister network HLN, and by CNBC, the business channel which was broadcasting the Winter Olympics.

The channel boasts that it remains the go-to channel for breaking news, and reaches a wider audience over the course of a month than does any of its rivals, and points out it spends more on original reporting, too, especially internationally.

It is a position that has been undermined by the advent of the internet, says Ms Mitchell. "If cable news is no longer the first place people turn to for updates on breaking news, it must meet another need of the news consumer. The audience spikes the channel enjoyed during key moments in the 2008 presidential race were met with a reality in 2009: during the weeks of the shootings at Fort Hood and the earthquake in Haiti, CNN's coverage was not enough to keep Fox News out of first place."