CNN tries to claw back the viewers

CNN is under fire in Europe as rival 24-hour channels eat into its market share. The US giant has hired a new agency and boosted its ad spend in an effort to be more ‘relevant’ to Europeans. Will it work?

Many people still associate Cable News Network (CNN) with veteran war journalist Peter Arnett reporting from Baghdad as US bombers rained down on Iraq and in particular his hotel. The Gulf War ended more than six years ago and still internal CNN research shows that: “CNN does not seem to have a role in people’s lives when there is no major international conflict going on.”

The statement comes from a confidential creative brief given to advertising agencies asked for ideas to make the cable channel more “relevant”. CNN has now hired Lansdown Conquest to work on a pan-European basis (MW July 10) with a spend of as much as 5m. The new budget, if it is realised, indicates that CNN means business – last year it spent just over 350,000 through Travis Sennett Sully Ross (Register-MEAL). The promotion will open with a three-week campaign in September.

Officially the station says it has hired the agency to help communicate its increased regional programming strategy. But the confidential brief underlines the real reason for the fresh investment in advertising. “CNN faces a competitive situation in Europe wherein national 24-hour news television channels – Sky News in the UK, n-tv in Germany, LCI in France and others – are rapidly pulling away from CNN in terms of ratings, share of viewing and reach… The creative task becomes that of finding a relevance for the channel in people’s lives and a role for the channel in people’s media habits.”

According to one source, CNN’s own internal research, conducted each September, shows that it is watched by 13 per cent of European adult cable viewers. It needs to boost that to 20 per cent by September 1998 if it is to stay on cable packages. “There is a chance that CNN might lose its foothold on cable packages across Europe,” says the source. “The channel is perceived as an American brand. It has high awareness but is seen as dour and a bit dull.”

When CNN International began programming in 1985 it was the only cable news player in Europe which featured a 24-hours-a-day diet of news and current affairs documentaries.

The firmament has changed since then. In Europe, NBC Europe, Euronews, and BBC World have all entered the market with the same or very similar propositions. Sky News has established a strong brand in the UK. And in its US home territory, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Network and Microsoft/NBC joint venture MSNBC have been launched.

All of these channels reach smaller audiences than the market leader CNN. But in Europe the greatest threat to CNN comes from BBC World, which in a very different form began satellite broadcasting on the continent in 1987.

In October 1991, BBC World Service Television was launched, which broadcast news and current affairs to Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In January 1995, after an increase in funding and personnel, it was rebranded as BBC World.

Chief executive of BBC News Tony Hall has at his disposal the largest news gathering operation in the world for the new station. The impressive figures include 2,000 reporters and 50 foreign bureaux, covering 174 countries.

Ironically, most observers believe the Gulf War was the reason BBC World was transformed into a global channel. As one analyst says: “That conflict really showed that it had to have global reach.”

However, BBC World managing director Mark Young denies this: “The history of this channel is that we wanted to put the breadth and the scope of World Service Radio on TV.

“Although we do think there is room for a European perspective on world events and an American one.”

According to research from CIA Medianetwork, CNN currently broadcasts to 50 million homes in Europe direct by satellite or cable, then reaches another 30 million through agreements with terrestrial broadcasters. By contrast BBC World reaches about 30 million homes across Europe, with no terrestrial feeds to speak of.

The pockets of the US player are also impressively deep. CNN’s combined budget for its US and non-US service is 375m. By contrast, the total news budget for the BBC is 312m, but this includes local and national domestic TV, and Radio, the World Service, as well as BBC World.

As one analyst puts it: “What the BBC has is a great brand and an enviable programme library. What it lacks is money and the ability to market its services.”

But Young counters: “People shouldn’t worry about our finances. They should look at what we deliver. Our programmes are strong and impartial. And our analysis and longer programming is better than anybody else’s.

“Our airtime is selling out. Our recent Hong Kong coverage was completely sold out and we are doing well in Latin America and India. In India alone we have 10 million viewers. It is an outdated view that we do not know about commercial imperatives. And our production costs are the tightest you will find anywhere.”

Lansdown Conquest will also have to make CNN appear less American in tone. Despite the fact that Chris Cramer, senior vice-president managing editor of CNN International, claims that 80 per cent of the channel’s content is now distinct from its US parent, it is still seen as too US-focused.

“The aim is to have four distinct versions of CNN around the world within the year,” says Cramer. “In six to 12 months we will have substantially different programmes and advertising. This will allow advertisers to talk to consumers on a more intimate level. However, if a big news story breaks we will be able to link all four strands together again very quickly.”

Young claims CNN is simply playing catch-up with the BBC. “This is something we recognised some time ago. Other players are following our lead.”

But Cramer intends to add more than just traditional news and current affairs strands to the CNN mix. The station is currently filming two separate pilots for an arts and a music show, which are scheduled to appear early next year. “It’s a different way of going forward,” says Cramer. “I want to make it a more self-contained channel. I want to lock viewers into the channel any way I can.”

Young estimates that the market for global TV networks will support more than two players but less than six. There are almost a dozen companies already in the market or with serious plans to enter. And, privately CNN admits that it is falling behind some of those players.

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