To Save CNN, You Must Kill It

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Ever since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared, Time Warner's (TWX) CNN has been under fire.

I actually don't have a strong opinion one way or the other of the network's coverage of the mystery. That's, in part, because I haven't watched much of it aside from clips on the Internet. Some of the stuff I have seen -- like Don Lemon's "black hole" inanity -- made me laugh after I cringed. That said, doing television isn't easy -- not from a host, guest or producer standpoint.

Until you have walked a tenth of a kilometer in their shoes, be careful how you judge.

Before I back up my seemingly outrageous headline with narrative that would make David Carr of The New York Times proud, full disclosure:

After having appeared on CNN as a guest for a while, I had preliminary discussions with them about working there. Very preliminary, but at a relatively high level.

I spent a short amount of time with Jeff Zucker, CNN's President, in New York last year. He seemed to dig what I had to say.

Shortly after that meeting, I met with CNN's "VP of Talent Development and Acquisition," Roman Escobar. We had what felt like a positive 90-minute interaction. Escobar was supposed to follow up. He never did. And that's all good.

I'm quite low on Zucker and Escobar's priority list. And there's no reason why I should be high.

Late last year, I stopped appearing on CNN by choice. Three things top the list of reasons why -- I have minimal aspiration to be a TV star; I don't think, in the venue CNN and cable news offers, I'm all that good at TV; and I'm not a fan of working for free, particularly if it takes away from the work I do for my employer, TheStreet, which it was.

It's kind of cool to be on TV when you first do it. And the exposure was -- I guess -- nice. But the value of exposure diminishes exponentially with each appearance. Being on TV as a cable news guest ultimately turns into work you're not getting paid for. And, like I said, I had no real desire to pay my dues with high hopes that I'd morph into a TV celebrity.

So this article doesn't stem from hard feelings. Media stuff like this just intrigues me. It always has. Ever since I was about nine years old. So that's a good 30 years. And I think I have something to add to the conversation.

Plus, if you're an investor in the media space -- particularly traditional media -- what happens with CNN says at least a little something about the mindset of the people running Time Warner. That matters if you're looking to buy or sell the stock.

I'm stepping back and taking a more conceptual look at CNN, the predicament it's in and, with that in mind, how it ought to proceed.

Blow It Up and Start Over

Oddly, CNN can learn from radio. Traditional radio.

Despite the medium's recent and relative ineptitude, broadcast radio has always been good at the format change. To be specific, it has always been very good at having the courage to take the leap and change formats and execute the actual format flip. This is not to say all new formats work out. Some stations have become known for changing formats with the wind. That's never good. But there's nothing better in the broad media business than witnessing the execution and implementation of a well-timed, -planned and -executed format change, particularly ones accompanied by highly-produced, but still genuine pomp and circumstance.

CNN requires a format change. A wholesale format change. In the spirit of radio's most dramatic shifts.

At this unfortunate juncture, sandwiched in-between the partisan infotainment of Twenty-First Century Fox's (FOXA) Fox News and Comcast's (CMCSA) MSNBC, CNN essentially runs a worthless operation. Most programming kills time between advertisements. 

There's no there there.

Without a major news story to obsess over there's pretty much no reason to watch CNN. There's no outrage to pump your fists in unison with or react to full of anger. With few exceptions, you learn nothing you didn't know when you watch CNN. The network's void of compelling personalities -- it doesn't have a Bill O' Reilly. Granted, he might not be the best example, but you get the point. There's nobody at CNN who resonates strongly enough to keep people coming back for more -- with feeling -- night after night after night.

Say what you will about the people who run Fox News, but they have mastered the art of infotainment and, while they win with a near-dead audience, they still win. Fox will need to adequately address their demo-related issues, but that's another story for another day.

Fox concocted a formula CNN can't copy, has no idea now to counter and probably shouldn't waste its time emulating or directly beating back anyway. So it's time to scrap the present failed experiment of randomness and get on with something that can set CNN apart and raise the bar on quality news and entertainment (using the term "entertainment" broadly; as in the word can and does mean more than something that's "funny").

CNN needs to take a page from radio -- back in the heyday -- and blow the whole thing up. Like literally shut it down.

Tonight.

At midnight.

Turn off the transmitter. Or whatever they do in TV to take the network off the air.

Let that roll for a few hours while people try to figure out what the hell's going on.

Twitter (TWTR) will go insane.

A dark screen on CNN will pull bigger numbers than anything it's had on the air in the last five years.

And then, taking a page directly from the radio guys, run a loop for a week or two or even a month -- a loop of the same song over and over again. Or maybe the voice of James Earl Jones made to sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Tease that something big is coming at this time, on this day.

That would be addressing the situation for real ... something that simply hasn't happened prior to or now that we're knee deep in the Jeff Zucker era. No more dragging the puck. Enough pulling from the same failed bag of cable television tricks (e.g., "Crossfire"). Do something that blows minds.

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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