CNN’s Prime-Time Experiment Is Off to a Slow Start

CNN’s new chairman, Chris Licht, debuted a novel experiment last month to revive his network’s flagging prime-time ratings, betting that viewers would tune in for a mix of exclusive interviews and specials dedicated to hot-button topics like fentanyl abuse and the war in Ukraine.

Viewers have had other ideas.

Since Mr. Licht’s 9 p.m. experiment, “CNN Primetime,” began airing several times a week on Feb. 22, viewership has fallen below what the network was drawing in the time slot just a few months ago.

At 9 p.m. on March 8, more Americans watched “Homicide Hunter: The Man With No Face” on the Investigation Discovery cable network than CNN’s exclusive interview with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Two days earlier, an afternoon broadcast of “Ancient Aliens” on the History Channel drew a bigger audience than a 9 p.m. interview with the first lady, Jill Biden.

Last week, when the network aired the Biden and Zelensky interviews, as well as a town hall with Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, CNN delivered its fourth-lowest 9 p.m. weekly ratings in 24 years.

CNN has had a rocky run since Mr. Licht, a former morning-show and late-night producer, was named to the job about a year ago. The network downsized its staff, jettisoned a new streaming channel and faced an uproar over sexist remarks by the anchor Don Lemon.

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Mr. Licht has retained the firm support of his boss, David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, which acquired CNN last year. On a visit to CNN’s Manhattan offices on Tuesday, Mr. Zaslav delivered a full-throated endorsement of Mr. Licht’s vision for the network, urging the staff to try out new ideas — “ratings be damned.”

“We’re trying to figure out what is the best CNN,” Mr. Zaslav said, according to a transcript of his remarks obtained by The New York Times. “What are the stories we should be telling? What’s the right balance?”

“Let’s get a lot wrong in the next year,” he added.

A CNN spokesman said on Thursday: “We’ve been openly experimenting with a variety of programming directions over the past few weeks. Without an established format, cadence or promotion for that hour, the network has focused exclusively on producing smart and meaningful content — not on ratings.”

CNN has not deployed a marketing effort to showcase these 9 p.m. specials, and it is possible the network could develop an audience in the time slot as more viewers become aware of the new concept.

Still, word of CNN’s dwindling audiences has traveled beyond the cable executives who pore over Nielsen data reports: At last weekend’s white-tie Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken singled out the network in his comedic keynote speech.

“According to the guest list, there are 600 attendees here tonight,” Mr. Blinken told the chuckling crowd. “CNN would kill for an audience like that.”

Cable news is a land of habit: Set-in-their-ways viewers, whose median age stretches into the high 60s, tune in expecting to see the same anchor night after night. The concept of devoting 9 p.m. to a fluctuating mix of hosts and topics — rather than a dedicated anchor with a big on-air personality — was always going to be a gamble.

Mr. Licht at CNN offices in Manhattan. The average audience for “CNN Primetime,” at 9, is 30 percent smaller than the preceding hour’s.Credit…Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

Mr. Licht pitched “CNN Primetime” as an opportunity to inject “fresh and unique perspectives to the news,” and his idea has come when some prime-time news shows have started falling behind afternoon fare. He has sought the services of hosts like the former basketball star Charles Barkley and the “CBS Mornings” anchor Gayle King.

But without a regular anchor in place, “CNN Primetime” specials are often announced just days, or even hours, before they air. Recent installments have included a town hall with citizens of East Palestine, Ohio, discussing the recent train disaster; a look at the Alex Murdaugh murder trial; and, on Wednesday, an examination of “the state of banking in America” in light of the Silicon Valley Bank collapse.

Since last week, Anderson Cooper’s long-running 8 p.m. program attracted an average audience of 584,000 viewers. The 9 p.m. specials averaged just 407,000, a difference of 30 percent. On several occasions, CNN’s strait-laced daytime shows, airing at off-hours like noon and 1 p.m., garnered bigger audiences than the new nighttime offerings. The lone “CNN Primetime” special that exceeded the viewership of its 8 p.m. lead-in was an interview with the comedian Bill Maher.

Mr. Licht and Mr. Zaslav share a view of CNN as a critical institution in American life that somewhat lost its way under its last president, Jeff Zucker, who encouraged his anchors to adopt confrontational stances toward the Trump administration. As Mr. Licht has gone about remaking CNN, he has championed the kind of straight-ahead reporting that he believes was de-emphasized in favor of more partisan punditry.

“We could have chosen as an organization to become an advocacy network,” Mr. Zaslav said in his remarks on Tuesday. “And we could probably make more money doing it. And, you know, there was a period of time where some of that strategy was deployed here.”

Whether there’s an audience for the new approach — at least, an audience sizable enough to generate the huge profits that Mr. Zucker reaped during his time atop CNN — remains an open question in a deeply polarized era.

Mr. Zaslav says he has no qualms. “Chris and I spend an awful lot of time together, and I’m extremely encouraged by where we are,” he said.