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How I Would Fix CNN (and cable news in general). Thoughts from a CNN Veteran

Huffington Post recently confirmed CNN is yet again shaking up management as President Jim Walton is leaving as the once proud network continues its downward spiral in the ratings. As a still very proud alumnus of CNN during its heyday (1990-1995) and someone who has built and managed multiple production companies in the years since, I have some ideas and would be happy to help manage CNN back to the network it once was and still can be.

Report the News, Don’t Tell Me What to Think

When Fox News came along they came with a clear agenda on what to report and how it should be reported. The idea is to shape the viewer opinion and discussion for a pre-determined outcome rather than simply reporting the news and letting the viewers make their own mind about the events. So instead of anchors and reporters delivering the stories, they make use of endless “commentators” and “experts” to tell the viewers what they should think of the story. Fox ensures that the majority of the voices the viewer will hear follow the proper message that Fox management wants to deliver on a daily basis. In addition, the anchors have very defined positions on many of the stories.

As a result, instead of being well educated about events both in the United States and abroad, multiple studies show that Fox News viewers are the least informed about th.... When you don’t have to think for yourself, you tend to not pay attention to the information. And when Fox uses loads of panels and discussions, they can fill more time with less actual “news” so they can further restrict the amount of stories their audience is exposed to on any given day. Of course, Fox News also flat out lies when the need calls for it.

So then, why has CNN (and MSNBC for that matter) adopted this “new style” of television news with endless commentators, experts, and panels who discuss ad nauseam the news of the day? As I recall from my days at the network, CNN viewers slanted towards those who were well educated in the news and events of the world. Now by “well educated” I’m not talking about schooling, I mean people who have an understanding and interest in the events of the world. In other words, these viewers can think for themselves. They are not people who want to be told what to think, how to think and who to be angry at. These are also viewers who are not leaving CNN to watch Fox either, they’re just simply not tuning in anymore because it’s insulting to be told what to think.

The viewers are also not tuning in because, well, there’s not very much news with this format. Just like Fox can manipulate how little “news” their audience actually receives daily, this format restricts CNN from actually reporting, well, the news. At any given moment on CNN it feels like there’s a 30 second soundbite and then a 10 minute discussion on what we just heard to tell us what we should think. Boring and repetitive. I don’t care who the host is, or who the panelists are or how interesting the topic might be, boring and repetitive.

I’d be willing to bet that NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams reports more stories in its 30 minute nightly broadcast than CNN and Fox News combined in most of their 30 minute blocks. Quite honestly I enjoy NBC Nightly News more than any other newscast because they do get right to the point with the stories and they squeeze the most news into that 30 minutes because that’s all the time they have.

So how about getting back to basics and telling the story. No prejudice, no slant, no experts telling us what we’re supposed to think about the story, no arguments between “left and right.” Just tell the story and do the best damn reporting from multiple resources like CNN used to do.

Don’t allow On Air Talent to slant or take sides

This is taking yet another cue from Fox News, but it’s a slippery slope. There are hosts across the CNN family of networks that openly take sides and even make accusations without having all of the facts on hand. One host in particular is famous for declaration of guilt or innocence long before the facts or the verdicts are in.

This is tabloid journalism at its worst and has no place in a company that considers itself the “Worldwide Leader In News.” Just run TMZ or hire the Jersey Shore crew to give opinions on news events and call it day if you want go that route. It’s impossible to differentiate “serious journalism” from “tabloid journalism” if it all comes from the same place.

I firmly believe hiring on-air Talent for their opinions is the single most destructive thing that has happened to CNN’s credibility in its history. Credibility lost by allowing one on air person to declare guilt at all costs demeans the work of the real journalists working under the same banner.

At one time the mantra of the network was: “The News is the Star.” In other words, Journalists are observers who report what they find. Journalists don’t interject their own opinion, they don’t make up facts, they don’t shout down others, they observe, investigate and report on what they find. It’s time to get rid of the opinions and put talented people back on camera who actually understand newsgathering and can report the stories of the day fairly.

Tell me the WHOLE Story.

This is 24 hours of news per day. When did the stories shrink to 30 to 60 seconds with nary time to hear anything useful? What’s so important that the news has to be extremely short when you have 24 hours to fill?

The American attention span is short, but yet I keep hearing from educated viewers (again, not talking school education here) that CBS Sunday Morning is their favorite news program on the air. Could there BE a more slower paced news show on television? Why do they like it? Because the stories are allowed to breathe and we get much more information from them than just a 60 second soundbite and some b-roll. Same with 60 Minutes on Sunday evenings.

I’m not saying you run 10 minute stories all day long on CNN, but 2:30 - 5:00 packages throughout the day would be wonderful. Give the reporters, writers, producers and editors time to who the story from multiple angles and more information. Run the 7:00 to 10:00 minute features when the story warrants. If a story runs over the “traditional top of the hour break” then so be it. The internet doesn’t run on one hour blocks so CNN really doesn’t have to either. Sure it’s nice on the TV Guides, but if it’s the difference between a chopped up 1 minute story and 10 minutes to tell the whole story, well just tell the story. We have 24 hours to make up for whatever story we missed “at the top of the hour.”

For the audience that wants to get just the quick headlines of the days events, well that’s what Headline News was designed for and they can just watch that..... oh wait..... it’s now HLN and just another network full of people telling us what we’re supposed to think and who we’re supposed to be angry with. Never mind, I can only fix one network at a time.

Bring back the Talent.

Here’s something that I know will be completely radical and I probably should not put this out there in public, but...... I would bring back a lot of editorial, reporting and production talent. Blasphemy I know because the majority of the money in a corporation is supposed to be spent on management, management perks and more management.

Management in corporate America is paid so disproportionately to the rank and file that certainly with trimming even a small portion of management from the company, that would free up money to bring back creative talent. Management can’t create a quality on-air product worth watching, but the corporation mentality keeps rewarding bad decisions that lead to ever smaller audiences and quite honestly that doesn’t make any sense.

CNN is a NEWS ORGANIZATION that reports the news VISUALLY so without talent to report, write, photograph and edit, well, you’ve got nothing to show other than a bunch of “experts, panelists and commentators” to tell us what to think. So first and foremost I would bring back the actual talent that can report and show the news. That probably means taking a look at the many levels of management to see how to start trimming that area back instead of the constant firing of the production talent that is so prevalen...

You simply can’t produce an accurate, high quality, on air product if you don’t have the journalistic and creative talent behind it. Period. Hiring a whole bunch of new folks with no credibility or contacts is not going to cut it. It takes years to build up a reputation as someone to share information with. The veteran journalistic and creative talent needs to be beefed back up so the network can get back to telling the stories and telling them accurately.

Educate the Viewer

A recent poll showed that when you remove the talking points from an issue and simply present the facts, there is more agreement than disagreement between Americans.

So in addition to telling the whole story, let’s educate the viewer on issues both large and small. Right now if CNN wants to discuss “ObamaCare” then we’re sure to see two “experts” on both sides of the issue arguing for 5 minutes and generally the person who shouts the loudest wins. How can you possibly explain something so complex as the 974 page Affordable Health Care Act with two opposite minded people merely shouting talking points in 5 minutes? There is a need to explain complex issues so regular Americans can understand them, but not to the Elementary schoolchildren playground “I Know You Are, but What Am I?” level.

Once again, we have 24 hours a day, 365 days a year of “news” to fill. Using the Affordable Health Care Act as an example, break it down and explain exactly what the law is and is not. How exactly the law affects Americans. How will it be funded? How is it different from what is available today and so on. There are 974 pages to go through and comprehend. Break the entire Act down in plain English for the viewer to better understand what the issue is. This will take more than 10 minutes to do, it’ll probably take weeks, maybe months to properly produce a special that accurately explains the law. You run these specials both on air and with full sections of the website dedicated to these issues. No slant, no opinion, just the facts and nothing but the facts.

Educating the viewer will make CNN a very valuable and “go to” resource for the general public. We already know what both sides of any issue already think, there’s no need to rehash that, tell me something I don’t know.

Use iReporters to augment, not replace.

CNN management recently decided that everyday folks with cell phones are going to be able to replace journalistic and creative professionals. They won’t. They certainly can and should augment the creative professionals, but they can’t completely replace them. iReporters are great for “in the moment” action, breaking news, and even some small town stories, but if you’re going to tell a news story, you need to tell the whole story, from all angles, in a compelling way.

There is an art to shooting and telling the story to ensure that it’s reported fairly and balanced. Reporters from news organizations can open doors and get folks to speak out on camera that folks with an iPhone won’t get access to. You need that kind of access to tell the whole story. General public folks with cellphones often just show one side of the story, the side they see when something is happening. Getting the whole story requires trained photographers and sound people along with reporters and producers with experience.

So there’s no denying that iReporters or relying on general public folks with cameras should be used to help augment production when needed, but in no way should it ever replace what trained created professionals do.

Call out the lies and the liars who tell them.

It seems in today’s political and news world, folks are allowed to say whatever they want on television with very little questioning. The attitude seems to be “if I say it, then it’s true.” That’s completely unacceptable in life, let alone condoning it on news channels by letting the people get away with it.

Let’s call them out. Make a statement on CNN, another network or at an event that seems questionable, let’s find the truth. Hold people, especially our public servants, accountable for their actions and statements. That’s one of the things the news is supposed to do, not leave it to comedians like Jon Stewart and his very talented team at The Daily Show.

Get the news right the first time.

There always has been competition to get breaking news out first. This was something CNN did very well for a long time, in part because there was nobody else doing 24 hour news. Now with so much competition, breaking news scoops are measured in seconds rather than minutes or hours. Apparently getting the news onto the air 5 seconds before anyone else means you’re better than the other guys at getting the stories. That’s all well and good until you get the story wrong.

The most recent black eye for CNN was the highly anticipated Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Health Care Act, or “Obamacare.” Not only did CNN get it wrong, it took a full seven minutes for them to correct the story.

It’s one thing to get it wrong, but to take a full seven minutes on the air to correct yourself? That’s horrific. More than anything else, those seven minutes just erodes consumer confidence in the network as a trustworthy news source. So one has to ask, is it worth a 5 second scoop to get the news wrong or take that extra 30 seconds to confirm the story is correct?

Augment coverage on the internet

CNN actually has one of the best internet news websites on the market, but it's rather stale on a day to day basis. Hit that website for an entire week and only the very top section is updated over the course of a week. All of the rest of the panels seems to stick with the same story all week long.

First off, CNN's domestic coverage should be a live feed on the home page 24/7. There's no excuse for the news coverage to not be one of the first things the viewer sees. For the overseas audience, they can change this to CNN International / CNN Espanol or another network.

Second, the website should be constantly updating to augment and compliment the television coverage. The news is all coming from the same place, so why does the website feel like a completely independent operation from the television networks? The two should compliment each other more tightly than they seem to do now.

Put more live, special interest events on the internet and off the network coverage. For example, each and every campaign stop by a politician is not a "breaking news event" worthy of live coverage on the network. Stream those to the internet and those who want to see them, can. Pick and choose events that are truly "news worthy" and not just stump speeches for network air. Same for court cases and the like. If it's not "news worthy" to the mass audience, move it to the internet for the special interest audiences.

Look for and Give People a Voice

In the case of the United States, there are over 300 million people who live in the country. If you watch any of the news networks for any length of time, it appears that less than 200 people are allowed to speak for the entire country about any topic.

There are 300 million voices in this country and while it will take some digging, some real journalistic work and reaching out to the affiliates, there are some great stories out there of Americans doing things right. Just regular people who see a need and come up with a solution. No fanfare, no committees, no arguments on Sunday Morning talking head shows..... With 24 hour news, there's a lot of room to go out and find these stories. Not just a vehicle for talking heads to spew information on what's wrong today, CNN can help present solutions to their audience. Immigration, HealthCare, Poverty, Drought, Climate Change, Pollution, Science, Education and so on.

Very often it's the people who live with the issues each day that come up with the most creative and cost-effective solutions. It's time we start finding those folks.

In a nutshell

I could go on, but these are the major areas where I would start to re-build the network. It won’t happen overnight, but given the chance, I know myself and a few other CNN alumni could put the network back on the path to credibility and profitability, in that order.

Walter Biscardi, Jr.

CNN Editor 1990 - 1995

Owner, Biscardi Creative Media, Buford, GA

Posted by: walter biscardi on Aug 14, 2012 at 2:58:29 amComments (31) Cable New, CNN

Professional Video Editor, Producer, Creative Director, Director since 1990.

Credits include multiple Emmys, Tellys, Aurora and CableAce Awards.

Creative Director for Georgia-Pacific and GP Studios, Atlanta. Former Owner / Operator of Biscardi Creative Media. The show you knew us best for was "Good Eats" on the Food Network. I developed the HD Post workflow and we also created all the animations for the series.

Favorite pastime is cooking with pizza on the grill one of my specialties. Each Christmas Eve we serve the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a traditional Italian seafood meal with approx. 30 items on the menu.

If I wasn't in video production I would either own a restaurant or a movie theater.



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