CNN adds diversity, but still needs strategy to reclaim its status as the go-to breaking news source

Elevating Abby Phillip and Laura Coates is wonderful. Now CNN needs more viewers to watch them

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic
Published August 17, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)
Updated August 17, 2023 1:30PM (EDT)
Abby Phillip, Laura Coates and Kaitlan Collins (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Abby Phillip, Laura Coates and Kaitlan Collins (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

On the same day that CNN announced its revamped programming lineup, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow enjoyed the cosmic good fortune of having Hillary Clinton on her weekly show.

That meant MSNBC had one of the most sought-after people in politics sitting in its studio and being chatted up by one of the biggest names in cable news when the news broke that Clinton's 2016 Republican presential opponent Donald Trump was being indicted for a fourth time.

The former secretary of state's responses to Maddow were sober. "Do you feel satisfaction in that you warned the country, essentially, that he was going to try to end democracy?" the host asked Clinton, to which she replied no. 

"The only satisfaction may be that the system is working," she said, "that all of the efforts by Donald Trump, his allies and his enablers to try to silence the truth, to try to undermine democracy, have been brought into the light."

Then again, if a person only caught the gist of this segment via social media memes, they'd be more likely to encounter a screen capture of Clinton smiling giddily above the news chyron reading "Grand Jury Returns 10 Indictments in Trump Probe." 

Abby Phillip is the second rising network star to be named as a permanent replacement for a face that once defined the network.

Certainly that image affirmed the rapturous reaction of a large percentage of the public that is giddy about every legal consequence Trump and his co-conspirators may face. Those people may be even giddier that the left-leaning "The Rachel Maddow Show" provided the setting for this extraordinary moment of cable news kismet.

And this reaction evokes the challenge CNN faces as its news team barrels into a national election cycle that's already looking tenser and more fraught than 2020's or 2022's nailbiters. 

CNN's programming update is a long-overdue effort to bring stability to a network in upheaval following the ouster of top executive Jeff Zucker and the short debacle that was Chris Licht's tenure as chairman and chief executive of CNN. It remains to be seen if the new leadership's decisions will prove strategically wiser than their predecessors. 

In the short term, elevating Abby Phillip and Laura Coates addresses concerns about the lack of diversity in its on-air talent following Don Lemon's firing.

Phillip, a senior political correspondent, moves from hosting CNN's Sunday show "Inside Politics" to becoming the permanent host of "CNN NewsNight with Abby Phillip." Manu Raju assumes the role of hosting "Inside Politics" once Phillip's show launches.

Coates, CNN's chief legal analyst, is the permanent host of CNN's 11 p.m. weeknight news hour, newly titled "Laura Coates Live."

CNN's other weeknight primetime anchors Erin Burnett, Anderson Cooper and Kaitlan Collins will continue helming their previous timeslots. 

The network also announced new weekend shows for former Fox News anchor Chris Wallace and veteran international journalist Christiane Amanpour, whose eponymous program will follow "The Chris Wallace Show" on Saturday mornings.

Meanwhile, chief White House correspondent Phil Mattingly will fill the co-host chair of "CNN This Morning" alongside Poppy Harlow. If you're wondering who Mattingly is, that's kind of the point. He's more of a straight news delivery person as opposed to a personality, making him a better choice for the network's a.m. tentpole than the contentious mismatch of Don Lemon, Collins and Harlow.

Phil MattinglyPhil Mattingly attends the 24th Annual Mark Twain Prize For American Humor at The Kennedy Center on March 19, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

Abby Phillip is the second rising network star to be named as a permanent replacement for a face that once defined the network: her 10 p.m. time slot was formerly occupied by Lemon. "The Source with Kaitlan Collins" replaced Chris Cuomo's show when it debuted in July.

Both Phillip and Collins have the unenviable task of recalibrating audience expectations established by their predecessors.

Mind you, those time slots never belonged to Lemon or Cuomo as media analyst and former CNN host Brian Stelter sagely observed in his recent comments about another axed cable news personality. "News anchors don't own their time slots, they rent," Stelter wrote in Vanity Fair.

That may be true in the broader sense of time and space, but Lemon and Cuomo enjoyed a very long primetime lease.  

Both Phillip and Collins have the unenviable task of recalibrating audience expectations established by their predecessors, who were well-liked before they were fired. 

Cuomo and Lemon didn't do much to pull CNN out of the ratings depths either, but their combative personalities generated the clips and soundbites Zucker prizes. It established them as personalities pushing back against the barrage of "alternative facts" streaming out of the previous administration's White House through their right-wing cable news competition.

But this also places the onus on Collins and Phillip to offer a similarly potent counterpoint to the successful primetime lineup that MSNBC has built while helping to solidify CNN's purpose and identity. 

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That matters more than whatever Fox News is doing regardless of Fox's ratings dominance, mainly because Fox's primetime lineup, though successful, is opinion, not news

Even so, there's no getting around the obfuscating emotional component that it and the rest of the right-wing mediasphere have injected into news coverage across the field. 

Both CNN and MSNBC are striving to deliver fact-based reporting and analysis, but for years MSNBC has excelled at capitalizing on liberal passions hooked to breaking political developments. Monday's ratings coup for "The Rachel Maddow Show," and CNN's modest showing in comparison, exemplifies this. 

Long before Trump transformed cable news media into partisan propaganda and anti-propaganda factions, CNN was the centrist go-to for breaking news headlines of this magnitude.

Monday night's Nielsen cable ratings illustrate how far removed we are from that era. Maddow's Aug. 14 broadcast drew 538,000 in live plus same-day ratings in the 25-54 target demographic, with a total viewership of 3.93 million, healthily outpacing Sean Hannity's Fox News show, which pulled 285,000 in the demo and 2.4 million total audience.

Where was CNN's audience in all of this? Veteran anchor Anderson Cooper's coverage averaged 175,000 viewers in the 25-54 age range. 

Cooper is a known factor to news consumers on both cable and network TV, where he serves as a "60 Minutes" correspondent. Yet when this momentous news event broke on Monday, his network failed to reap the same gains as its opinion-driven competition.

For the evening's overall viewership, MSNBC took the most-watched crown with a 3.09 million total audience, with Fox News finishing second with 2.20 million. CNN eked out an average of 1.17 million viewers. 

Again, that's typical of how the rankings of the three networks have broken down for some time, although in year-over-year comparisons, Fox and CNN have weathered steep double-digit declines compared to the same week in 2022, according to a recent AdWeek analysis. MSNBC's audience is also down, but not as sharply.

CNN still lacks a permanent replacement for Licht who can devote their full focus toward shaping its editorial direction.

Straight news delivered with concision and insightful analysis still has value and theoretically, is what the audience wants. Updating CNN's weeknight lineup aligns with that idea while presenting a more inclusive on-camera roster. 

Coates is a respected analyst and one of the few names the late Alex Trebek mentioned as a serious suggestion to replace him as the host of "Jeopardy!" Phillips has extensive experience in covering D.C. politics, although Collins received more of a public boost from previous CNN management — especially after the network's disastrous Trump town hall in May that she moderated. 

CNN still lacks a permanent replacement for Licht who can devote their full focus toward shaping its editorial direction. Its interim leadership team consists of Amy Entelis, the network's executive vice president for talent and content development; Virginia Moseley, executive vice president of editorial; Eric Sherling, executive vice president of U.S. programming; and chief operating officer David Leavy.

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Yet to be determined is what they or the person they hire for the top job can bring to the cable news conversation that MSNBC isn't, and whether that direction can successfully capitalize on those distinctions as the 2024 presidential campaign heats up. 

There is an opportunity to move the needle here, especially if CNN returns to its classic strengths: live, on-location reporting and in-depth long-form journalism. It should also resist the urge to take on Fox, an opponent that's also recently stabilized following a consequential and entirely self-inflicted wounding. 

Fox had lost viewers to Trump's smaller but more vociferous megaphones Newsmax and One America News, but that audience cannot be coaxed leftward in the information space. After the loss of Tucker Carlson, Fox News' lineup changes have helped the network recoup "a significant chunk of its viewers," according to Washington Post.

The better news for CNN is being a near-perennial last-place finisher in the ratings leaves it with extensive room for growth . . . if its leadership gives its newly elevated and deserving talent the leeway and support to make that happen.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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