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To Save CNN, You Must Kill It

Stocks in this article: TWX FOXA CMCSA

Without doubt, CNN would anger a lot of people by doing this, particularly if it followed it up with radical, wholesale change. The people who love CNN would come out of the woodwork. Disagreement with the decision to blow CNN up would rival and, quite possibly, dwarf the criticism the network receives for devoting so much airtime to "poop cruises" and MH370 conspiracy theories.

But that's OK. That's good heat to take.

I've witnessed it a million times in radio. A station goes dark. The audience freaks out, flooding management with complaints. "Everybody" hates the new format and rips the decision makers for jettisoning the old one. Ratings take a dive. But that's what you want. When you blow out the old format, you blow out the old audience and set out to build a new one with a new approach that will stand the test of time.

The idea that you'll "kill the CNN brand" is absurd. It's already dead.

Face it -- the CNN brand blows. It means nothing in a world where everything has become BREAKING NEWS that every Tom, Dick and Harry "reports" as it happens. Sure CNN still thrives, to some degree, on breaking news, but the second it subsides so do the network's numbers. It can't hang its hat on the falsehood that its brand is still strong because people watch when news breaks. Rather, it must assess its weakness -- that there's nothing compelling about CNN programming to keep people watching during the downtime, which is and should be treated by programmers like most of the time.

When the artist formerly known as CNN returns to the air it needs to be three things:

  • Not CNN. Let go of the history and nostalgia. Say goodbye. Kill CNN. It has a good run. Now it's over.
  • Different. Whatever the network becomes must be completely unrecognizable to what it was in any previous incarnation or what's happening on cable news around it. Completely change every aspect of the environment -- look, feel, style, sound. Everything.
  • Something like, if not actually, VICE. And that's where we break from the bullet points with an explanation ...

If I'm at Time Warner, I offer Shane Smith, the co-founder of VICE, anything he and his team (investors, employees, etc.) want to assume the space the network that once was CNN occupied. So when the network signs back on after the theatrics of the format flip, it does so simply as VICE.

These guys have proven that they know how to build and blow up (in a good way) a multimedia empire.

ICYMI -- here's what Smith had to say about CNN earlier this month:

CNN is a disaster. It's spiraling into shit ... They are trying to young it down, but everything they do is a fucking disaster. But what's bad for CNN is good for me.

Smith also contends it's possible to and he would like to "build the next CNN, the next ESPN." He argues, in the shell of a nut, that, yes, young people do care about news, but few media outlets do it well, particularly on network television.

First off, Smith's brilliant. And everything he says about VICE, CNN, the news business and all these things entail is correct. It's nice to finally come across somebody with the balls to say it. Full disclosure: I don't know Smith, but I met him briefly not long ago. He likely doesn't recall the interaction, but, in less than five minutes, I could tell that indeed he is brilliant and seems like a decent guy. 

Second, It's pretty incredible that Smith can get away with trashing CNN, given that VICE segments run weekly and receive a considerable amount of exposure on HBO, also a Time Warner network. That just goes to show not only the sway he holds, but the fact that nobody at Time Warner, to a person, could possibly disagree with his comments. 

Third, Time Warner should make it easy for Smith to build the next CNN. Provide him with the pipes and infrastructure and give him the same treatment FX gives comedian Louie CK. Louie does his show, which returns from way too long a hiatus in May, on FX because the network gives him complete and total control over the product. If Time Warner's smart -- and as desperate as it should be right now with respect to CNN -- it will do likewise with Smith/VICE.

VICE is the next big thing. And it's already here. Happening and taking off now. 

Whatever it does. CNN must stop being CNN. That hasn't worked in a while. And it's never going to work again. 

--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks. Rocco Pendola is a columnist for TheStreet. Whenever possible, Pendola uses hockey, Springsteen or Southern California references in his work. He lives in Santa Monica.
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