CNN: The comedy news network?
“The news is the star.”
That was Ted Turner’s mantra upon launching CNN in 1980. The statement wasn’t controversial at the time. Journalists shouldn’t be the first reason viewers tune into a newscast. Sure, credibility, accuracy and likability matter too, but, in the end, the news was the star, with those presenting it mostly a distant second.
“After you start reading your reviews, you run the risk of believing you’re important,” then-CNN chief anchor Bernard Shaw told the Washington Post in 1991 following rave reviews for his unmatched Gulf War coverage. “That can create distortions in your perceptions, in your honesty. It can color your judgment.”
Fast forward more than three decades and things are decidedly different at CNN. During the Trump years, the news person was the star. The network’s top anchors and correspondents appeared as late-night guests on Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, primarily to bash Donald Trump or the Republican Party, or both. They became cover stories and authors. And the more provocative the opinion, especially those critical of the conservatives and the president, the more the spotlight shines on them.
So, when news broke this week in a Semafor report that CNN was considering giving a comedian two hours of primetime real estate from 9:00 to 11:00 pm, it was hardly surprising. Under new leadership (Discovery) and CNN president Chris Licht, the changes at the network have included moving former “CNN Tonight” anchor Don Lemon to mornings and giving him one more hour of airtime, while extending former White House Correspondent Jim Acosta’s airtime anchoring“ CNN Newsroom” an hour.
Some longtime partisan hosts and correspondents have also let go (Brian Stelter, Jeffrey Toobin, John Harwood, to name a few). But overall, the network looks basically the same as it did the day Licht took over. No major signings have occurred, with some existing chess pieces simply moved around the board.
And therein lies the rub: When Licht took over in May 2022, CNN was third in overall viewers among the three major cable news networks. Since then, the network has drifted even further back while struggling to attract an average of 600,000 viewers.
For context, CNN attracted an average of 1.9 million viewers two years ago this month, or more than 300 percent more. In primetime, the average viewership was 2.6 million in January 2021. But in 2023, no program in primetime eclipses even 700,000 viewers.
So Licht (a former executive producer of Colbert’s CBS show), perhaps seeing he may not have the kind of talent internally to jumpstart his primetime lineup into something competitive, reportedly is looking to names such as former “Daily Show” hosts Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah and “Real Time” hosted by Bill Maher.
On paper, Stewart is the most appealing from a ratings perspective given his track record at Comedy Central. Ten years ago, during a ho-hum off-election year in political news, Stewart averaged 2.5 million viewers. His interviews and monologues went viral apparently on an almost daily basis. His reported salary was approximately $30 million annually.
Stewart signed a multiyear deal with Apple during the pandemic but failed to capture the same buzz. When his show, “The Problem with Jon Stewart,” debuted in October of that year, the first episode was seen in 180,000 homes, according to Samba TV firm measurement.
But by March 2022, nearly 80 percent of the audience had vanished, with just 40,000 people tuning in. So, can Stewart generate the same reaction he once did? And exactly what kind of salary are we talking about here?
All of that said, that makes Trevor Noah a non-starter. In 2022, Noah has difficulty bringing in more than 400,000 viewers per night, or more than 2 million fewer than Stewart. His monologues and interviews rarely went viral. If improved numbers are CNN’s goal, Noah has shown he simply can’t bring eyeballs or much buzz despite being handed a highly successful show.
Which brings us to Bill Maher, who may be the best fit given his current home at HBO falls under the Discovery/CNN umbrella. Maher’s viewership numbers are solid, and he still knows how to generate online chatter and debate due to his unpredictability and sometimes not towing the woke-liberal line.
But Maher does a weekly show. His guest list is relatively diverse. And a two-hour grind on weeknights is just that. The 67-year-old Maher may not be keen about hitting his wagon to CNN on a nightly basis and watering down his own brand in the process. CNN would probably also have to enter the eight-figure range just to match his current $10 million salary from HBO.
And then there’s the issue of perception when it comes to ideology: All three prospects were profoundly liberal at a time when CNN reportedly wanted to move back to the center. It’s highly unlikely that Stewart or Noah or Maher would entertain supporting a GOP presidential nominee.
With the 2024 campaign season set to go into high gear in the spring, such a comedic offering would likely consist of exactly what CNN had become during the Zucker era: another version of MSNBC-meets-“The View” and a pariah to anyone right of center.
CNN has a big problem in primetime and across the network in general. To most conservatives, it’s not a news network, it’s an adversary. Some liberals resent that it is courting Republican lawmakers to come back on the network again.
Comedy can work on cable news. Just ask Fox News’s Greg Gutfeld, who is trouncing late night hosts like ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and NBC’s Jimmy Fallon while topping CBS’s Stephen Colbert on many nights.
But can CNN succeed in the same fashion by doing comedy that alienates more than half of its potential audience right out of the gate?
Time will tell, but the cons appear to outweigh the pros.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist and a Fox News contributor.