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CNN Pitches Comeback Story

Big news this year has been good news for CNN. The initial cable news network was stumbling last year; ratings slid, and in the fourth quarter, parent company Time Warner announced for the first time in memory that ad revenue was down for CNN.

But with attention focusing on unrest in Egypt and Libya and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, viewers are tuning in to CNN for its historic strengths in breaking and international news, just in time for this year’s upfront. In its presentations to media buyers, CNN stresses that while “the world has gotten more interesting,” the network itself has made changes to retain viewers when times are tranquil. As part of its comeback, CNN is also offering to provide significant advertisers additional data about their return on investment (ROI).

“We were always a short distance away from total recovery,” says Greg D’Alba, CNN ad sales COO, who has been with the network through 30 years of ups and downs. D’Alba says demand has remained high for CNN’s products. “For all the right reasons, most of our advertisers stayed with us, and the demand is growing this year,” he says. Nevertheless, “when you go through a soft period, it’s a great time for self-analysis.”

Gary Carr, executive director, national broadcast at media agency TargetCast tcm, says he tunes in CNN when big stories break, but it remains to be seen if ratings will be higher long-term. “People haven’t moved away from CNN just because their ratings declined,” Carr says. “They do a good job of selling their whole global story.” With lower ratings, CNN “became easier to deal with,” he notes.

Last year, CNN replaced the head of its U.S. network, Jonathan Klein, with Ken Jautz, a veteran journalist who had been running Headline News. Jautz took several steps to change CNN’s on-air product, including blending together CNN’s domestic and international newsgathering forces.

“Big events generate interest and bring viewers,” Jautz says. “The thing we have to do is have ourselves positioned so that when those people flock to us, some will like what they see and stick with us…and I like to think that we have been doing that [even] before these news stories started.”

Some of CNN’s problems could also be traced to its primetime lineup. As it fell behind Fox News Channel and MSNBC, CNN’s ad revenue also lagged. According to SNL Kagan, Fox News had $652 million in ad revenue in 2010, up 10%, beating $509 million for CNN and HLN, up 3%. MSNBC was up 9%, to $188 million.

Last year, CNN replaced legendary 9 p.m. host Larry King with British newsman Piers Morgan, who has benefited from the flurry of big international stories. Morgan’s ratings this year are 64% higher than King’s last year. That’s helped lift Anderson Cooper 360 at 10 p.m., which is up 38% among adults 25-54. During mid-March, CNN doubled its share of news viewing in the 25-54 demo, beating its rivals.

To allay advertiser concerns that CNN might suffer in a news lull, D’Alba points out that the upcoming calendar is filled with events sure to draw viewers and sponsors.

Like other networks, CNN is gearing up for the royal wedding, and has signed General Mills and Marriott as sponsors. Presidential debates are just around the corner; during this upfront, D’Alba will be selling five-quarter election sponsorships. Other special programming is also sponsorable, including the multicultural In America series of special reports and theme weeks on such topics as baby boomers and health.

D’Alba stresses he’s selling more than a television network. During the Japan disaster, CNN registered 800 million global page views and 160 million video starts, which are big numbers. “In a world of integration and an advertising community that has to have seamless content integration, CNN is defining itself as a true integrator,” he says.

D’Alba likes to say that CNN’s content gets “turbocharged” by its success with social media. Last month, Twitter helped power a last-minute interview with Charlie Sheen into one of Morgan’s highest-rated shows. And CNN has done a study that shows consumers are five times more engaged with advertising surrounded by news content linked by a friend.

“That brand uplift including intent to buy and favorable brand view is substantial, so that’s why advertisers want to surround themselves with Web-shared content,” D’Alba says.

This year, CNN is offering all of its substantial clients an “ROI toolkit” providing research on cross-platform reach and frequency, and delivery of influential consumers, to illustrate how associating with CNN content boosts brand awareness and intent to purchase a client’s product.

“That’s in our wheelhouse,” says D’Alba. “Our post-sell is our best pre-sell.”

Ken Jautz, who became executive VP responsible for CNN US last September, says he's made strategic changes to CNN's programming that has allowed the network to report the recent wave of big international stories and engage with audiences around them.

The network has embraced a day part strategy, changing formats, pacing and the contents of its shows to be more appropriate to the ways people watch TV at different hours of the day.

For example, in the morning, when people are rushing around to get themselves and their kids out the door, news shows are faster paced with a higher story count and a more conversational tone.

Daytime newscasts are covering a wider range of topics that included international news even before the unrest in Egypt came to the fore. There are also hourly updates on politics, entertainment and sports, which means stories are less likely to repeat.

"We've broadened out our daytime shows because people tuning in to television news during the day want to be caught with everything that's going on, all that's going on, and that's why we've broadened those shows," Jautz said.

In the evening, viewers have already caught up with the news online, via websites or social media like Twitter, he said. "Therefore you have to provide something additional and so we have much more, call it value added. We have much more opinion and context and debate and analysis in addition to facts."

Another change was enabling co-productions between CNN International and CNN US. "We took anchors, international people, and the domestic people and reported on appropriate stories together, which enabled us to introduce people on the domestic program who have regional knowledge more, and so you'd have more substance to your programming," he said.

Greg D'Alba, exec VP and COO of CNN ad sales, says the changes have made CNN more attractive to advertisers as the upfront approaches.

"Our top categories are stronger than ever" and the programming changes are ".giving us more places, more homes for those advertisers and feature programming that's more specific to their creative message."

Financial services category has been making a comeback, and CNN will have more content in that that area. "The same thing on pharmaceuticals with health reporting, the same thing with automotive," D'Alba says. "Automotive is going to be a huge category obviously for our industry this year with brand launches." He also expects advocacy ads to heat up.

"So as we reach out to the marketplace and we talk about what we have to sell and we consider demand and we consider the strength of the scatter market moving into the upfront, one thing that will hold true beyond all these subtle changes that we're making, beyond the events of the world that we're covering better than any other entity out there, we still provide trust and quality journalism that has always gotten fair value in the marketplace and advertisers have placed a premium on," D'Alba said.

"Demand is going to be strong across the board.. Speculation is it's going to be breaking early," he said. "When scatter is this strong it's inevitable that you have to have a strong upfront. When you're heading into an election cycle, with the complexity of world events, I think we're in position to do really well. "

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