CNN's Ratings Woes: A Brand Problem

I have been thinking about why CNN's ratings are down. Uneven genericism - like the half-and-half at Starbucks - that awkward space between taking a stand and having none.

It's that, unlike say MSNBC ("Lean Forward" - radical left) or FOX ("Fair and Balanced - steadfastly right) they resist owning their brand.

CNN refuses to take a clear position in the customer's mind, in the market.

When I watch a news channel I am looking at three things simultaneously:

1. The story itself - the what

2. The choice of story - the why

3. The mode of delivery - the how

Except for CBS's 60 Minutes, the old days of journalistic objectivity - the attempt at it, the pretense of it - are gone.

That's not OK with me, but I understand they are there to sell papers (airtime) and bias is a fact of life.

Anyway, personality is interesting. I enjoy listening to all kinds of views.

But with CNN it's never clear what I'm getting. The brand is not consistent.

Whereas jn the past they seemed more like the Bible of centrist news coverage, now they seem sometimes center, sometimes left.

This is evident in the stories they cover, and the ones they don't - CBS and FOX picked up on Fast & Furious early on, while CNN, NBC, and ABC let it languish despite the explosive nature of the facts.

Now they cover it, but in an odd, reluctant way that seems to cut off a genuine interchange.

For example, whereas Rachel Maddow of MSNBC says flatly what she thinks of the whole thing (irrelevant, basically), CNN's Soledad O'Brien claims to be "keeping them honest" yet sympathizes with the Left.

Last night she had an oddly lengthy sympathetic interview with someone who wrote an article disputing the whistleblower's account. Then she attacked Rep. John Mica, who simply said that one magazine story should not impede an investigation by Congress. (Not that he wasn't condescending. He was.)

This points up the issue of brand personality. While one attribute CNN always owned was expertise, now their leads are uneven.

On the positive side, Anderson Cooper seems to be both informed and objective. Fareed Zakaria, an expert. Piers Morgan gets right to the point.

Others are less so.

Bottom line: If you are biased, fine - just be like MSNBC's Chris Matthews and say so. (Where is Christiane Amanpour? Still around at CNN but I miss her pervasive presence.)

The lesson for us is that in a branded world you've got to take a stand. Even if you are a journalist you take one. It's a way of acknowledging your blind spot: "OK, I bring these values to the table."

That way I, the viewer, can filter what you the journalist have to say.

Everybody has a bias. Everyone has interests. But the honest thing to do - and ultimately the best one for the brand - is to make them clear and be accountable for them.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!