Every once in a while, you have to glance twice at CNN’s ratings to believe what you see. The oldest and most promoted cable news network in history no longer draws a million viewers in any time slot. The top-rated CNN show, usually the one hosted by an amped-up Chris Cuomo, often ranks 30th in cable news. Cord-cutting and losing Donald Trump certainly hurt CNN, as they hurt every news network. But why has CNN fallen so much further than the rest?
A network loses viewers when it no longer understands, connects to, or programs for them. And that’s precisely what’s happening at CNN.
Last week, CNN posted an opinion piece called, “Why ‘Succession’ is starting to fall flat.” At first read, the article seems harmless and subjective. While those are good assessments, the column itself reveals something bigger about the network itself: CNN’s negative opinion of Succession evinces the overall disconnect between CNN and the general public.
Culture reveals our true interests. It’s not coincidental that you share interests with your closest friends. It’s likely that your interests brought you together. Our favorite films, series, songs, and books tell us who we are. CNN is no different. Its issues with Succession show who CNN is — and, more importantly, who CNN thinks Americans are.
Throughout the piece, the writer attempts to argue that Succession is falling flat because it doesn’t track with the country’s evolving interests. Of course, that’s not true. Succession has never been more popular, and it’s one of the few programs growing in numbers.
According to CNN, Americans have gone cold on anti-heroes, the Tony Soprano/Don Draper types. You know, the protagonists who basically make up television’s Mount Rushmore.
Instead, CNN says viewers now prefer series based “on warmth, generosity, friendship, and idealism.” We searched for data to support that point because CNN didn’t provide any. It turns out, The Sopranos, led by anti-hero Tony Soprano, experienced a resurgence among younger viewers over the past year. They love him. Last year, streamers also revisited the offices of Sterling Cooper as Mad Men‘s anti-hero Don Draper too gained a new wave of popularity.
Still, CNN technically isn’t wrong. Some Americans are fed up with main characters who aren’t idealistic or generous. Yet such viewers make up are a small group, even if they’re louder than the rest.
If you come across CNN at your local airport, you’ll notice that the network leans left, but not for the average liberal type. CNN’s elitism, narcissism, and demeaning attitude feed these feelings within themselves. Don Lemon does a show for Chris Cuomo, the brother of one former governor and the son of another. Anderson Cooper has Jake Tapper, not his viewers, on his mind as the studio lights go on.
Media producer Steve Krakauer recently asked Dan Abrams why CNN hides its biases while competitors embrace theirs. Krakauer and Abrams agreed that viewers would prefer that CNN admits its leaning. However, they know CNN won’t because the network is more concerned about its internal reputation than what consumers think.
“If you were to say ‘I’m not a journalist anymore, I am an opinion host,’ you would be ostracized internally [at CNN], ” Abrams says. “People would be saying ‘I didn’t come here to work on a quasi-news show.'”
That’s the difference between CNN and Fox News, Newsmax, and even MSNBC. Other networks respond to their viewers’ interests. Meanwhile, CNN tells its viewers what their interests should be and shames those who don’t obey.
This mindset is evident in the Succession piece. It doesn’t take more than a few scrolls to find the CNN writer viewing television characters solely through racialized lenses:
“Anti-heroes — from Tony Soprano on ‘The Sopranos’ to Frank Underwood on ‘House of Cards’ — have been almost exclusively men, and mostly White.” Read that last part in a spooky voice. It’s fun.
First, the claim isn’t true. Several recent anti-heroes have been women or black men. Fleabag’s nameless woman, the characters in Orange Is the New Black, Batwoman, and Power’s Ghost come to mind.
CNN ignores these shows in the mistaken belief that counting the race and gender of series characters is normal and not at all racist. If that were true, Don Lemon would average over 400,000 viewers a night since he regularly uses skin color to frame his topics. Most viewers want compelling characters, whether black (The Wire), white (Breaking Bad), or green (some superhero show I watched on Netflix). CNN prefers racial essentialism.
CNN says “unhappy reminders of Fox News and Trump’s media ambitions” have caused Succession to sink in popularity. What a bizarre statement at a time each news network desperately tries to offset the losses they have incurred since Trump left the White House. Any similarities between Logan Roy, the anti-hero of Succession, and Trump — such as they are — help Succession if for no other reason than they compel viewers to love or hate him.
Viewers need an emotional attachment to characters, which, for better or worse, made Trump the biggest draw on television. The complexities of a star character drive viewership. No wonder they have confused CNN.
Whether they are on cable news or in a TV series, stars are distinctive and memorable. Look at past and present cable news superstars: Tucker Carlson, Rachel Maddow, Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, Keith Olbermann.
There’s nothing distinctive or memorable about CNN’s primetime lineup. Cuomo, Cooper, and Lemon are unoriginal and speak mostly in clichés. Viewers find them preachy and shallow. Moreover, Americans want to wake up to energetic and positive anchors. So CNN promoted Brianna Keilar, who has yet to smile or laugh on set, to its morning show.
Elitists sympathize only with themselves and, therefore, soon lose touch with the outside world. Inside the walls of CNN, a show like Succession is alarmingly inappropriate and stale. CNN anchors and writers can’t understand how someone could enjoy a show featuring a wealthy white family that is deeply — perhaps irreversibly — flawed. And if CNN programming is any indication, they don’t understand satire, witty character arcs, the appeal of vulnerability, or realism either.
When CNN says Succession is falling flat, it’s saying Americans are falling flat. CNN isn’t wrong, not in the community in which its employees exclusively live.