Last year, Jeff Bewkes, the ruler of Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX), took a pay cut of 1%, to $25.9 million -- peanuts compared to Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) CEO Bob Iger’s $31.4 million or Discovery Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK) CEO David Zaslaf’s $52.4 million. Bewkes said he took the cut because “the company did not surpass financial targets by as great an amount as it did in 2010.”
Bewkes also is reportedly upset about the ratings decline at Time Warner’s CNN. As well he should be.
April was the cruelest month for CNN/US -- its lowest rated month since August 2001, according to Nielsen. The once-leading cable news network now has even fewer viewers than MSNBC, despite its latest makeover, which was hailed by CNN’s flugelhorn blowers as the best thing to happen to TV since the invention of commercials.
What’s wrong with CNN? The basic problem, dating back to its founding in 1980, is a bad business plan. There aren’t enough news junkies out there, especially in the 55-to-death demographic (as they are called by the ad agency madmen), who still prefer watching the news the old-fashioned way: from the couch or La-Z-Boy.
CNN gets its best numbers in times of disaster (earthquakes, hurricanes, plane crashes). TV viewers are like rubberneckers who slow down to see the mayhem on the highway. People are just hungry for vicarious excitement. Isn’t it awful? As crass as it may sound, there just aren’t enough disasters, ratings-wise.
News itself has become boring. It has a been-there, done-that quality these days. Republicans hate Obama. Obama calls Republicans the party of the fat cats. Nothing seems to change. The Greek debt crisis has been going on for two years, maybe more. Hot news would be if there weren’t a Greek debt crisis.
The biggest disappointment, though, is the new faces CNN has brought in for the new, improved, more exciting CNN of the future. No matter how many Soledad O’Briens and Erin Burnetts the CNN talent-hunters discover, and no matter how much hair spray you spritz on the schedule, nothing compares to the failure to find a replacement for Larry King as the iconic voice of CNN.
Whatever Larry’s weaknesses were as a rival to Mike Wallace as an interrogator, Larry was an American institution, even if I admired only his taste in suspenders. After a quarter of a century, his ratings were melting like a Popsicle on a summer day on the sidewalks of New York.
But what programming genius came up with the idea of replacing him with Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan (aka Piers Morgan)? What a coup.
A judge and contestant on reality TV shows (Britain's Got Talent, America's Got Talent, The Celebrity Apprentice), he is also an often-fired pillar of British journalism (The Sun, News of the World, The Mirror). As an editor, Morgan was famous for his lack of concern for celebrities' rights to privacy.
There was always the chance he would bring the joie de vivre of News of the World tabloid journalism to dowdy CNN.
There are those who like the smarmy, arrogant, self-satisfied quality he brings to CNN. Nobody I know watches the Larry King Memorial Hour anymore. But I can see why Private Eye used to call him “Piers Moron.”
What I would have done is replace King Larry with another legend: Ted Turner, the founding father of CNN and once Time Warner’s largest stockholder (“A million shares more or less,” as he used to say). After being pushed into unwanted retirement by former Time Warner honcho Gerald M. Levin –- one of CNBC's "Worst American CEOs of All Time" -- the Mouth of the South went back to his home on the range in Montana, where seldom is heard a discouraging word. (What can you expect a buffalo to say?)
Ted was a joy covering on the TV beat. We never knew what he was going to say at press conferences. Neither did he, it was said. He was totally unpredictable, with a flair for overdramatic language and outrageous statements. Funny and fearless, he was a Green even before Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar. Saving the planet and the world from nuclear destruction, corporate democracy, denouncing the fat cat networks that were destroying TV... all the producers had to do was wind him up and let him talk about whatever crossed his mind.
True, some people consider him a nut. But Ted would be a shot of electricity into the limping CNN. Why, I’d even put him on opposite The O’Reilly Factor at 8 o’clock on Fox News, ending O'Reilly's 15-year reign of terror.
Ted Turner would be the Howard Beale we have been waiting for since Network.