CNN - the view from Walton mountain

Jim Walton, president of CNN, says its the quality of viewers, not quantity, which will beat Fox. Raymond Snoddy reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jim Walton, the president of the CNN News Group, will do almost anything to avoid having to articulate "the F word". "I genuinely don't talk about the competition," insists the CNN boss, before clearly doing so, albeit it in an oblique way.

"There has been a lot of noise about the ratings and a particular network vs CNN/US. What doesn't get reported as widely is that CNN/US has more viewers," says the man in charge of one of the world's most famous news organisations. The problem is that although the other network has fewer viewers, its viewers watch for longer and that feeds into a significant lead in the ratings that shows little sign of narrowing.

"We don't have fans and nor should we as a news organisation, necessarily," he says. "One of our competitors has fans and that speaks volumes." He stresses CNN is prepared to disappoint all parts of its audience, if that is what it takes to cover the news properly. "We need to be independent thinkers; we need to be provocative; we need to ask questions and we are going to piss people off along the way," he adds.

The network that CNN dares not speak its name - at least not very often in Walton's conversation - is, of course, Fox News, the opinionated, right-of-centre, 24-hour television news channel owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, that has shown CNN a clean pair of heels in the ratings in the US in recent years. Last year, Fox News averaged just over a million viewers - a 53 per cent increase - while CNN showed growth in a strong news year, but only by 24 per cent to 665,000.

"I think we can overtake them in ratings - I'm not sure, but I think we can close the gap," says Walton, the sports broadcasting executive, who surprisingly was chosen for the top job in CNN nearly two years ago.

The management of the company, founded by Ted Turner but owned by Time Warner, had noticed how Walton had successfully integrated CNN's sports networks with its websites and ran them in a co-ordinated way.

"I was asked if I could bring that co-ordinated thinking to CNN and after about 2.3 seconds I said, 'Yes, let's give it a shot,'" says Walton who joined CNN straight out of university one year after the channel was launched on 1 June, 1980.

So far, the signs are that Walton has no intention of trying to ape Fox News by producing opinionated news, or of moving down-market into the realms of more populist television. In fact, one of the first things he did was axe the Connie Chung Tonight, which he felt did not sit easily with the CNN brand and replaced it with more serious fare. "If it was just a matter of higher ratings we might do things differently. We might be more sensationalist. We might be more tabloid and we might be more opinionated and our ratings might go up, but the quality of our audience would go down," Walton insists.

One of his favourite themes is that not every ratings point is created equal and that because CNN attracts better-educated, more affluent viewers it can charge a premium with both cable operators and advertisers.

"That said I am not happy with the ratings for CNN/US and we are working hard to improve on those," he says.

In a sign of a new direction last month CNN appointed an online media entrepreneur and news executive, Jonathan Klein, as president of CNN/US. Klein was founder and chief executive of The FeedRoom, a large broadband news network.

Walton is determined to serve the "at work audience" with broadband news programming. As for now the CNN president argues that although ratings may not be dramatically higher than when he took over, "we know what we are doing and we are going to have the greatest profit growth in our history this year".

Walton declines to comment on US estimates that CNN will have revenues of more than $1.1bn and profits of more than $220m. And while Fox is an American network, CNN is an international business with nine international networks and services and six international partners enabling it to claim that it can reach more than one billion people worldwide. "Our international reach is a differentiator for us and it's one of the things that helps put the shine on our brand. There's a certain amount of class associated with CNN," he says.

A central theme, however, is to try to persuade people to watch longer so that over time the ratings can be driven up without compromising the brand. Walton has been beavering away at the structure of CNN so that it can do its job more efficiently. CNN.com is now under CNN programming so that the television correspondents can be easily used online, and newsgathering, which was a separate entity, is now also under programming. "The hope is that we are making better television, that we are telling all the important facts that we need to do but doing it in a way that people will remain interested for longer periods of time," says Walton.

Next month the organisation is launching "primetime appointment programming" on its Headline News service. The network is fully distributed throughout the US and Walton sees a great opportunity.

Because it has been unable to achieve full analogue distribution, this month Walton is pulling the plug on CNNfn, the group's financial news network, as a separate service. Lifeboats will be provided for some of the CNNfn programmes and staff but up to 30 people could lose their jobs.

"CNN is a huge organisation and it tried to do too many things, so that one of the things we have been trying to do is to focus on doing fewer things better," says Walton.

His period in charge of CNN has coincided with some of the most difficult and dangerous times in television news. Take safety. All those who go to report in dangerous places for CNN are volunteers who have all received training. "We have kept people from going to certain places because we have made a judgement that it is too dangerous," says Walton.

How successful have embedded reporters in Iraq been? There has clearly been a learning process with CNN becoming more aware that the technology that allowed reporting direct from the battlefield could result in a loss of context. "We learned not to be satisfied with just the hot pictures but to report from around the campaign," he says. "We have to take a step back and try to put things into context whenever we can."

And what about hostage videos? CNN has shown terrible pictures of hostages pleading for their lives but along with many broadcasters around the world eventually decided to show only still pictures. "We need to be able to report on the brutality of some of those beheadings yet without being gratuitous. If the terrorists didn't have outlets would they do it? These are hard questions but the fact remains that they can themselves post it on the internet and do it straight away," he says.

In Atlanta planning is already under way for a happier story - the 25th anniversary of a network that was once derided as Chicken Noodle News. Jim Walton points to one achievement above all: "I think it is a trusted place for people to go and get information and 25 years ago it was a dream. Now it is synonymous with: 'that must be true - it's on CNN'."

Comments