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Wet Hot British Summer

News and notes on America’s two most-discussed British media executives: Mark Thompson, who is gearing up for Thursday’s debate; and Will Lewis, who is holding on for dear life on K Street.

Mark Thompson will lewis
The highly anticipated CNN presidential debate offers a rare chance for the beleaguered news network to transcend its slide into irrelevance, if only for a night. 

June 26, 2024

On Thursday night, CNN will host the first, and perhaps only, presidential debate of the 2024 race—a program that seems all but destined to become the highest-rated 90 minutes in the network’s 44-year history. It’s a momentous Ali vs. Frazier political rematch that may change the course of the American presidential race, and thus the course of history. But it’s also a unique and pivotal opportunity for the beleaguered network to reestablish itself, if only for a night, as a relevant force in a culture that has largely grown ambivalent to it. In any event, a lot for CNN C.E.O. Mark Thompson and his deputies Virginia Moseley and Amy Entelis to chew on during their dinner tonight at the Four Seasons in Atlanta, just a few blocks east of the debate studio. 

Without this debate, in fact, the network would be on track to register its lowest monthly audience since the end of the Cold War. It can no longer reasonably profess to be the place people turn to for breaking news, in part, because no such place exists. Meanwhile, Thompson’s plan to usher in a robust post-linear future—a landscape where audiences habitually engage with CNN’s digital, mobile, and streaming platforms, and maybe even pay for it—remains nebulous. Thompson’s Times revival has given him profound street cred inside Hudson Yards, but his employees are increasingly antsy about the unveiling of both his grand strategy and tactics—nervous, in part, because they generally seem to grasp the profundity of the business model challenge and worry that simple measures won’t be enough. At the Times, after all, Thompson had to create a pipeline to grow consumer revenue to replace the losses in print advertising. At CNN, he has to manage the decline of TV advertising and carriage fees.

During an appearance at Cannes Lions this month, Thompson said that CNN Digital has 170 million monthly users, 17 to 20 million of whom are “really engaged.” But even the rosiest projections for that plan seem to fall well short of what CNN would need to one day replace its declining linear business, which brings in about $750 million a year in profit. Even if 10 percent of those 20 million engaged users converted at a market-rate price point, you’re talking about, at maximum, a couple hundred million in annual revenue. Also, a probable best-case scenario for conversion would be 5 percent, which one digital media executive said was “way more realistic.” Another described 5 percent as “maybe doable but hard,” and “nowhere near what they need to offset the declines.”

As I’ve previously reported, Thompson and his digital growth chief Alex MacCallum are mere weeks away from unveiling their plan to transform the network into a multiplatform business. And, as I’ve also reported, that plan will require implementing a new round of staff cuts across the organization. These layoffs, which will be announced in July, will certainly be far more strategic than the hundreds of exits that Chris Licht implemented in late 2022—and, uncomfortable as they may be, they represent meaningful forward momentum. But they’ll still be substantial, and painful.

On one level, it can be tempting to see CNN’s ability to land this debate as a testament to some of its enduring strengths. At the very least, it validates the durability of its live-event infrastructure and institutional programming aptitude, as well as the relatively nonpartisan editorial approach that enabled both Trump and Biden to sign on. And while both campaigns will try to work the refs—in Trump’s case by alleging moderator bias, in Biden’s by chafing over the moderators’ disinclination to act as fact-checkers—the most likely outcome is that seasoned professionals Jake Tapper and Dana Bash do a perfectly fine job, CNN draws tens of millions of viewers across its distribution channels, the network earns eight figures in commercial revenue, and executives and proud employees watch their logo plastered across all the rival networks simulcasting the debate. 

And yet, in a matter of hours or perhaps days, CNN will return to the exact same circumstances in which it finds itself today: averaging half a million viewers any given night, struggling to assert its value in a crowded news environment, anxiously awaiting Thompson’s plan—and then, once that plan is announced, anxiously hoping that it might actually be brilliant enough to sustain CNN’s business and its influence.

In retrospect, one wonders if Thompson & Co. should have at least utilized this landmark television event to market the next iteration of their business. In the old days, Les Moonves used the Super Bowl to market his overhauled lineups. NBC never programs an Olympics or even a horse race without inviting a Minion, or using it as the lead-in for a series premiere. What if Thompson had put in a new primetime lineup, overhauled the website, launched a few new Max shows, and unveiled a new digital subscription product—or, hell, even one of those things—before the debate, and then used the debate to convince a fraction of Thursday’s viewership to stick around on CNN for 90 minutes thereafter? 

Sure, none of this would have solved any of Thompson’s big challenges. But amid an era in company history in which CNN desperately wants to feel like CNN again, it might have managed the hangover.
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