Soledad O’Brien’s CNN future undetermined

(Charles Sykes/Associated Press)

Back when he was CNN Worldwide president-in-abeyance, Jeff Zucker said something memorably hollow regarding morning programming on CNN: “I think that mornings are a very important way to begin every day on the network.”

Zucker is now busy leveraging that insight just a week into his official tenure at CNN. E-mailed statements are flying around the network — contributors such as James Carville and Mary Matalin are peeling off; top editorial guy Mark Whitaker is out of there; and there’s all kinds of tumult surrounding the network’s morning lineup: Anchor Chris Cuomo is leaving ABC for CNN, his ultimate destination a key slot in a new CNN a.m. product. Erin Burnett, who anchors the 7 p.m. offering, is reported to be headed toward the morning as well.

Media watchers can do basic addition and subtraction, yielding the obvious question: Where does this leave CNN “Starting Point” anchor Soledad O’Brien? She’s the one who relishes clashes with newsmakers such as Rudy Giuliani, John Sununu, Republican Rep. Peter King, gun-rights advocate John Lott and many, many others. Though stats on this sort of thing aren’t readily available, those clashes often produce soundbites that entice blogs such as this one to aggregate the segments. On a network that needs some pop, O’Brien’s interrogations often fill a need — not only in branding CNN, but also in driving traffic to CNN.com.

An unidentified person at CNN said that O’Brien is not granting interviews at this time. A statement released by CNN, which is “unattributed” to any of the network’s executives, says this: “Soledad is very important to the network, and we’re discussing various options with her.”

No way to know how authentic that sentiment may be, given that it’s “unattributed.”

What is authentic is the data. Have a look at the ratings data for Thursday. In the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. space, the CNN combo of “Early Start” and “Starting Point” scored 220,000 viewers, to 1.2 million for “Fox & Friends,” 446,000 for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” 124,000 for CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” and 212,000 for the HLN show “Morning Express.” If only such numbers represented an anomaly for CNN. They do not. “Starting Point” averaged just 234,000 viewers in 2012, and cable-news watchers have been sounding the alarm about CNN’s a.m. performance for some time. The numbers are bad enough that you could say, loosely, that no one watches the network’s morning programming. We’re talking about an average of 4,680 viewers per state.

Viewership of such puniness won’t hack it under a Zucker CNN. “His ambitions seem pretty big,” says a CNN source. “Maybe he would like to compete with the ‘Today’ show. I don’t think he’s saying that, though. I think he’s thinking bigger.”

And thinking bigger, on the morning-program front, means not aspiring to cannibalize cable rivals. “Fox & Friends,” for example. This half-moon-couch-sitting marathon is drubbing the competition in cable’s morning offerings. It was the 13th highest-ranking show on all of cable news last year with an average of 1.136 million viewers, lapping several times the viewership of “Starting Point.” “Fox & Friends” accomplished this feat with moronic segments, goofball anchoring and towering, felonious on-air mistakes that invariably tilted in one political direction. On a network with a great deal of broadcasting talent, this show has none.

That so many viewers would tune in such a bad product proves something that Zucker has been chanting to everyone. “One point he made was that cable is a zero-sum game. There’s a finite amount of viewers in the cable universe,” says the CNN source. As Zucker told reporters in December, “Our competition is not just Fox and MSNBC.” Instead, he has said, it’s the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and other television destinations. Good luck coaxing a million eyeballs from the rest of the cableverse.

Says the CNN source, “I think the show as it currently stands has been trying to compete with ‘Morning Joe’ and having this sort of roundtable discussions.” So look for exquisitely produced morning fare, with greater emphasis on sports, business and a move away from politics. And a move, too, away from some of the best interviews out there, even if they don’t marshal good TV ratings.

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