One crippled cruise ship, 3,000 American passengers, a golden opportunity for a troubled network. Jeff Zucker moved swiftly and decisively to put his distinctive editorial mark on CNN last week, giving the most telling insight yet into the way he sees the channel regaining its relevance.
He has been telling insiders that the future of the network is compelling story telling. During his tenure at NBC’s Today show, the programme was always the first stop for those with a story to tell from disgraced politicians to celebrities with secrets to ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Trouble on the Carnival Triumph was tailor-made for Zucker, two months into his reign as CNN supremo, to demonstrate what he wants. With an engine fire leaving the powerless ship to be towed by tugs back to the US from the Gulf of Mexico, it was a chance to show what might work.
Toilets failed to flush and overflowed, food was only served to people prepared to stand in queues for hours and Carnival Cruise Line ‘guests’ were left to find places to sleep on deck in fresh air.
This was not some dry-as-dust Washington political drama; the fiscal cliff, the Chuck Hagel filibuster; this was news as a 24-hour live reality show: pregnant women, honeymooners, partygoers, families each and every one a story.
With cell phone calls from passengers, photographs and video from social media and semi-hysterical relatives on land generating an unending stream of human-interest fodder, CNN had what it needed to climb back into the breaking news game. It was a chance to lead, rather than follow, or struggle to match, the agenda set by other news organisations.
A CNN helicopter hovered overhead the Carnival Triumph for the final chapter of the five day rescue mission, showing that even a powerless floating city can provide compelling shots, especially as night falls. CNN put its own boats alongside the ship. It had anchors (the human kind) waiting in Mobile, Alabama, for the big arrival.
If you were interested in the fate of inconvenienced holidaymakers — most probably using their last cell phone battery power to find a lawyer — then CNN was the place to be. Evidently many were, as CNN’s ratings enjoyed a rare ratings bump.
It was all-or-nothing coverage, demonstrating an almost “tabloid” sensibility. Saturation coverage in TV is no bad thing. The story arc may have moved as slowly as the ship, but the attitude was:
“This is a great news story because we say it’s a great news story”.
No tabloid editor ever worries about giving a story too much coverage; regret only comes from doing too little. And CNN did lead; a ‘Live Exclusive’ bug on screen constantly reassuring viewers that this was the only place to see tug-to-dock coverage.
But the close-to-the-limit hype can backfire. If coverage was not billed as ‘The Big Story’, it was being hailed as ‘Triumph Tragedy’. All this when no one died or was seriously hurt. The biggest issues most passengers faced were paddling through water, enduring foul smells or being denied the all-you-can eat buffet. It was hardly a ‘tragedy’. Even CNN’s own medical expert, Dr Sanjay Gupta, said conditions were uncomfortable, not life-threatening.
If tabloidisation is the future of CNN, the risk is a reduction in its remaining credibility. If everything is tragic, horrific or sensational, then nothing is. Anything can be exclusive, especially if other people chose not to cover it.
But the Carnival Triumph story was not purely about journalism. There were stories of equal, and some may say more, significance and importance breaking at the same time. Indeed rival networks could not help sneering at Zucker’s wall-to-wall coverage. This was about making a statement that CNN can, and will, be the place for live breaking news, with more cameras, satellite trucks, anchors and airtime at its disposal. Yet, it is a small step on a long road.
CNN’s entire relevance has been questionable in recent years. For opinion, sports, entertainment, business and finance, there are far more compelling places to get in-depth, quality information on dedicated cable and satellite channels.
Its own sister channel, Headline News, is short, sharp and focused. In breaking news, its BBC-esque importance — the place to go to watch a major new story — has been diluted by the willingness of all networks to pre-empt usual programmes to commit to coverage of natural and man-made disasters. Only in politics does CNN achieve a score draw.
Even more worrying for Zucker as he executes his strategy must be that newsmakers don’t see CNN as the place to break news anymore. The two biggest interview “gets” in recent months, Lance Armstrong and superstar Notre Dame footballer Manti Te’o, sat down with Oprah Winfrey and Katie Couric, respectively, to make their tearful, televised mea culpas.
Without big interviews, a stable of truly compelling must-see personalities to attract viewers or areas of expertise to makes CNN special, the channel will continue to face real problems. Like many of its rivals, CNN is still locked into the traditional hour-long programing format so diametrically opposite to the way millions now digest their news. Moving away from the traditional hour-long format worked well last week. Letting the story speak unfold live was, for a brief moment, a point of difference.
The all-or-nothing story-telling approach may work. At least it’s a strategy. But at CNN’s Columbus Circle HQ in New York, there will be many prayers to the news deities; long may they continue to deliver.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Martin Dunn is a former editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News