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CNN Bieber Special’s Ratings Performance Likely to Spawn More Insta-Docs

Concha: CNN Bieber Special's Ratings Performance Likely to Spawn More Insta-Docs

A hot debate in media circles over the past few days has focused on the following question:

Does Justin Bieber’s DUI arrest merit the amount of coverage it has received?

And in the case of CNN, did it warrant a 30-minute primetime special on Friday night?

I was asked the first of those two questions by Fox’s Howard Kurtz on Media Buzz on Sunday morning. To paraphrase the answer, I stated a Bieber in trouble—the owner of over 49 million Twitter followers (which beats the leader of the free world by seven million and the entire population of Bieber’s home country of Canada by 14 mil) is good for business…which in television means robust ratings in the key 25-54 demo advertisers care about most.

Here are two more numbers I shared when attempting to drive this point home: 40 million and 33 million. The first number reflects the number of people who watched the Oscars last year. The second is the total audience for the president’s State of the Union Address in 2013.

What makes this resounding victory for celebrity worship particularly interesting is the fact the Oscars are carried by one lone network, ABC, while the SOTU is carried by 12 networks, including the Big Three. And despite that massive combination, all that coverage across the board on free and cable TV, it still can’t touch Hollywood’s big night. America is a star-obsessed culture…plain and simple.
And the media learned how powerful that obsession is following the O.J. chase and trial, when the line between hard news and sensationalism were blurred forever.

So what does this all mean?

That — if we’re strictly talking giving the audience what it wants, supply-and-demand 101 — CNN guessed right in giving Bieber a special at 10:00 PM EST on Friday night. Why? Because the Nielsen ratings released today reflect this assessment, as the Bieber special was the highest-rated program for the network on Friday in both total viewers and the demo, even more than doubling some programs in said demo in the process (Note: CNN beat MSNBC’s Lockup but still fell to Fox’s Hannity).

After inching past MSNBC in 2013 (total day ratings), CNN has not carried that momentum into the new year. Bridgegate—a political story–gave MSNBC a nice bounce but provided no such benefit to CNN. The reverse effect happened during last summer’s George Zimmerman trial: CNN (and especially HLN) shot way up, while MSNBC took a hit. In the end, it’s all about strengths, weaknesses, pooling the right resources, and owning the narrative.

The Bieber special (which produced a 205 in the demo; context below) was a plan likely hatched at CNN sometime Thursday afternoon once it was apparent the story was getting hotter. Note: 10:00 PM on Fridays is normally a timeslot when cable news sees its lowest ratings of the week (prison docs notwithstanding), so why not put together a Bieber Insta-Doc (which takes only a few hours to produce properly) and air it at a time that—at least if the prior week is any indication–generated only a 106 in the demo, and see if the audience bites?

CNN President Jeff Zucker stated Monday morning at the RealScreen Summit (mainly a gathering of producers and advertisers) in Washington that the network will continue to add more documentaries and original films to its lineup. But he also stressed that the offerings will only complement the bread and butter CNN was founded on (news, particularly that of the breaking and international variety), not replace it.

The more docs/more original programs strategy isn’t a new one. In fact, it was/still is extremely effective for another Time Warner entity: HBO. The pay-channel’s business model was once almost 100 percent movie-based. But as subscribers began to fall off, HBO realized it had to broaden its programming and redefine itself.

Documentaries produced or purchased by HBO—some of the most critically-acclaimed ever made—provided one reason for viewers not to cancel their subscriptions. But the big difference-maker was HBO’s original series offerings, which has produced four of my Top 10 shows of all-time (The Larry Sanders Show, The Sopranos, Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm). Ask folks why they subscribe to HBO today, and most will tell you it’s for shows like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, not excessive replays of Caddyshack 2 and Titanic.

Execs at MTV, Showtime and Netflix will also tell you the same story around the need for broadening and expanding the overall package. And anyone important at ESPN will say its decision to launch its 30 for 30 Series (at the behest of Bill Simmons) was the best the network has made in years.

It will be an interesting 2014 for all of cable news. MSNBC—primarily a political opinion channel now—will look to capitalize on November’s midterms and all the speculation on winners and losers that goes with it. Fox will do the same and maintain its comfortable lead in the process. CNN—seen by many as more centrist when compared to its competitors—appears to see the writing on the wall.

As Margaret Thatcher once said, “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.”

More documentaries, more original programing may the answer in an increasingly polarized medium.

It worked for HBO, worked for Netflix…even worked for MTV.

Only question is…Can it work for a 34-year-old cable news network?

One thing is for certain: We’re now witnessing the dawn of a new kind of offering:

The Insta-Doc.

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