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07.31.12

Daniel Gross: CNN, NBC’s ‘Today,’ are big money makers. But you wouldn’t know it.

From all the bad press, you’d think CNN and NBC’s ‘Today’ are financial sinkholes. Guess again. Daniel Gross reports on why media types love to say the sky is falling.

Have you heard about the big crises at two of America’s most established media brands?

Last Friday, Jim Walton, the veteran president of CNN, stepped down, citing the need for a “new leader who brings a different perspective, different experiences, and a new plan.” And CNN certainly seems to need one. Primetime ratings in May were at a 20-year low, the network is the subject of near-constant ridicule by Jon Stewart, and it routinely gets crushed in ratings by more ideological rivals like MSNBC and Fox. Oh, and it badly muffed the most-anticipated breaking news event of the year: the Supreme Court’s health- care ruling. When the network canceled John King’s hour-long show earlier this year, The New York Times reporter Brian Stelter led the piece by referring to “the ailing cable-news channel CNN.”

A few notches down the dial at NBC, an even more venerable media brand seems to be in crisis as well. The Today show in late June unceremoniously dumped veteran Ann Curry and decided to replace her with a younger co-anchor, Savannah Guthrie. Producers may have moved quickly to swap talent because, after a reign that seemed to rival that of Queen Elizabeth II, Today was showing signs of being displaced atop the morning show ratings race by ABC’s Good Morning America.

With the press surrounding them, you’d think that CNN and Today are hemorrhaging money and acting as mammoth millstones around the necks of their parent companies. Which is sort of the opposite of the truth. From a financial perspective, CNN is one of the jewels in parent company Time Warner’s crown. CEO Jeff Bewkes told investors in May that CNN would make $600 million in profits this year. The company’s most recent quarterly earnings report shows that the networks division, of which CNN is a part, is carrying the company on its shoulders. CNN is an enormously popular global franchise with a really attractive business model: it collects fees from cable systems and sells advertisements on programming around the world.

Today is similarly a highlight for NBC. Brian Stelter and Bill Carter reported in the Times that the show makes up to $200 million in profits per year, and my new colleague Howard Kurtz wrote last fall that Today brings in up to $500 million in revenues per year. Over the years, as NBC’s primetime line-up has endured a brutal descent from dominance, the news division—anchored by Today—has been a financial bright spot.

Only in the media can two enterprises that, combined, funnel somewhere near $1 billion in profits to their corporate parents, be regarded as sinking ships, failures, and debacles.

Only in the media business can two enterprises that, combined, funnel somewhere near $1 billion in profits to their corporate parents, be regarded as sinking ships, failures, and debacles.

What gives? Many components of the media are in crisis—print, online, radio, broadcast, and cable—and misery loves company. So there’s a tendency by media types to talk down all their colleagues and rivals, especially those that are making money. (Want to hear a really nasty conversation? Hang out with a bunch of writers and ask them what they think of a guy whose books routinely top the bestseller lists.) In addition, many analysts tend to award style points for media in a way that they don’t award it to companies that make widgets or office furniture. For most investors and businesspeople, profits are profits. But media snobs put greater stock in those who can make money off of high-quality products. It’s cooler to own a fashion magazine than a trade publication, and more desirable to make a fortune peddling high-quality biographies than selling low-quality romance novels. For many observers, it’s not enough for CNN and Today to ring up profits; they have to look good and smart while doing so.

Of course, the pessimists are on to something. Franchises like CNN and Today are failing. Their share of the overall audience is falling. News flash: establishment media brands of all types are losing eyeballs, mindshare, and the share of advertisers’ wallets. Worse, the numbers are laid bare for all the world to see on sites like TVNewser. TVNewser reported that last Friday, for example, The Piers Morgan Show airing on CNN at 9 p.m. ET attracted a mere 112,000 viewers in the 25–54 demographic.There are podcasts that have bigger numbers than that.

Which is why, paradoxically, to succeed in mainstream media these days is, ultimately, to fail. As I argued in a column earlier this year, those who spend half their lives climbing to the top of the career ladder often suffer a cruel fate. They’ve excelled and won prizes, the adulation of peers, high salaries, and even higher status. And yet when they’re given the reins to a franchise, they’re instantly branded a failure. That’s what happened to Katie Couric when she took over the CBS Evenings News. And it’s what will likely happen to her successor, Scott Pelley. Savannah Guthrie won’t be able dramatically to reverse Today's  trend lines any more than Ann Curry did. And the next president of CNN will have a tough time turning back the clock 20 years, to a time before the Internet and aggressive rivals.

But focusing on the ratings and competitive position largely misses the point. Yes, companies or enterprises that lose market share have to worry about the future. But the real concern—whether you’re making widgets or news programming –is whether you can bring in more money than it costs you to make the products. Both CNN and the Today show have a long, long way to go before they’re financial negatives. All of us in the media business should be failing like they are.