CNN continued what has become a precipitous decline in ratings for its prime-time programs in the first quarter of 2010, with its main hosts losing almost half their viewers in a year.
The trend in news ratings for the first three months of this year is all up for one network, the Fox News Channel, which enjoyed its best quarter ever in ratings, and down for both MSNBC and CNN.
CNN had a slightly worse quarter in the fourth quarter of 2009, but the last three months have included compelling news events, like the earthquake in Haiti and the battle over health care, and CNN, which emphasizes its hard news coverage, was apparently unable to benefit.
The losses at CNN continued a pattern in place for much of the last year, as the network trailed its competitors in every prime-time hour. (CNN still easily beats MSNBC in the daytime hours, but those are less lucrative in advertising money, and both networks are far behind Fox News at all hours.)
About the only break from the bad news for CNN was that March was not as bad as February, when the network had its worst single month in its recent history, finishing behind not only Fox News and MSNBC, but also its sister network HLN — and even CNBC, which had Olympics programming that month.
CNN executives have steadfastly said that they will not change their approach to prime-time programs, which are led by hosts not aligned with any partisan point of view.
But the numbers are stark: For the network’s longest-running host, Larry King, who has always been regarded at CNN as the centerpiece of prime time because he drew the biggest audiences at 9 p.m., the quarter was his worst ever.
Mr. King’s audience dropped 43 percent for the quarter and 52 percent in March. He dropped to 771,000 viewers for the quarter from 1.34 million in 2009. More alarming perhaps, Mr. King, whose show has been regularly eclipsed by Rachel Maddow’s on MSNBC (and is almost quadrupled by Sean Hannity’s show on Fox), is now threatened by a new host, Joy Behar on HLN (formerly Headline News.)
In her first full quarter competing with Mr. King at 9 p.m. Ms. Behar wound up beating him in the ratings 21 times.
CNN has given no indication that any changes in its lineup are imminent, but recently announced that it would try a series of specials in a talk-show format at 11 p.m. with its current 10 p.m. host, Anderson Cooper. The specials are interpreted by some at the network as a trial run for a new 9 p.m. show with Mr. Cooper.
Mr. Cooper has long been regarded as the strongest host at CNN, but his show has suffered badly as well. For the quarter, Mr. Cooper dropped 42 percent in viewers and 46 percent among the 25-to-54-year-old audience that the news channels use for their sales to advertisers.
In the past, CNN relied on big audiences for Mr. King’s show to deliver viewers to Mr. Cooper. Now Mr. Cooper sometimes finds himself losing to repeats of shows on MSNBC and HLN. (At the other end of prime time, Campbell Brown’s show on CNN at 8 had its worst quarter ever with the 25-to-54-year-old audience.)
Even in the morning, CNN is sliding. Its “American Morning” show dropped behind “Morning Joe” on MSNBC in total viewers for the first time; it still beat the MSNBC show among 25- to 54-year-olds, though it was down 29 percent from a year earlier.
At the same time, Fox News, which had its biggest year in 2009, continues to add viewers. Greta Van Susteren’s show was up 25 percent from a year earlier. Bill O’Reilly, whose show commands the biggest audience in prime time with 3.65 million viewers, was up 28 percent, and Glenn Beck was up 50 percent from a year earlier.