The Cable Election Upset of the Age

Jake Tapper
Folks watching CNN last night were treated to a lot of Jake Tapper, which resulted in relatively little attention for Anderson Cooper and the familiar stable of election night stars. Photo: Steve Rogers Photography/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
November 9, 2022

For an entire generation, there have been two truisms of election night coverage in the United States. First, every other November, Wolf Blitzer has been a fixture in living rooms across the country, calmly and monotonously imploring us to “stand by” for another “key race alert,” which as often as not just indicated that polls were about to close in a few more states, allowing the vote count to actually begin. This soothing balm of nonchalant fastidiousness seemed to carry America through the night, simultaneously keeping us on edge for the next supposedly “breaking” development while somehow lulling us into a familiar patois. Some people loved Wolf, some people mocked Wolf, but a great many people relied on Wolf, and, indeed, on CNN.

And that was the second truism of election night coverage: the night seemed to belong to CNN. During historic general elections, such as those in 2008 and 2016, CNN was on in more living rooms than almost any other channel. It surpassed not only Fox News and MSNBC, but most of the broadcast networks, too. Midterm elections were less reliable given the smaller turnout, particularly as Fox News expanded its dominance over cable television and especially Republican viewers, but even then one thing was still certain: CNN would at least beat MSNBC. More Americans may have preferred the star power of Maddow, but come that first Tuesday in November, hundreds of thousands if not millions of them came back to Wolf—because CNN was where you went for the big events and for news, not just opinion.

This year, for the first time since 2004, Wolf did not lead CNN’s election night. And this year, for the first time in cable history, CNN came in third place behind MSNBC in the overall ratings for midterm election coverage, with about 2.6 million total viewers. CNN beat MSNBC in the 25-to-54 year-old demo, albeit with an audience that was only one million viewers. Fox News was the indisputable winner with 7.4 million total viewers, more than doubling the second-place ABC News, where George Stephanopoulos, who had been sidelined by David Muir, decided to skip election night altogether for the first time in 25 years. (The bigger picture: total viewership across broadcast and cable was down 32 percent from 2018.)

Wolf’s absence doesn’t necessarily correlate with CNN’s ratings loss—though “Where’s Wolf?” came up a lot in my text threads last night—but the two events, taken together, nevertheless once again mark the end of an era that keeps ending, and portends even more uncertainty for CNN going forward. The network is already drawing record-low ratings on the average weeknight. And now it can’t even command a dominant audience on the biggest nights, the ones where it has historically performed its best. 

From First to Last

Yes, we all know the big picture here. CNN, like MSNBC, is up against extraordinary secular headwinds, including (but not limited to) the inexorable decline of linear television, a parent company with its own financial pressures, a leadership transition, and the fracturing of the American electorate along media-reinforced lines. Moreover, in a world with Twitter and the New York Times Election Needle and infinite live blogs, it’s never been easier for voters to follow along at home on their phones, without the help of John King or Steve Kornacki. The erosion of the election-night ritual of “having the TV on in the background” is the result, of course, of inevitable and irreversible forces well beyond any network executive’s control.

Nevertheless, in flipping through the channels last night, CNN’s programming decisions seemed short on innovation. The production and the set were the same, but the tone and tenor were notably flat. In Wolf’s place was Jake Tapper, whose ill-fated five-week run in primetime hastened the network’s historic ratings decline and left the host even more convinced that his evening hours were better spent with family. Tapper spent a lot of time with his hands in his pockets, occasionally crowding King, the magic wall grandmaster, and conveying none of the comfortable authority that Maddow or Bret Baier were exhibiting over on the rival networks. 

And folks were treated to a lot of Tapper, which resulted in relatively little attention for Anderson Cooper and the familiar stable of election night stars: Abby Phillip, David Axelrod, Dana Bash, etcetera. Kasie Hunt, a star in her past life at MSNBC, enjoyed plenty of airtime, but seemed to be there just to be there, evidencing less of the extemporaneous brainiac political junkiedom that made her such a force at her old stomping grounds. Most notably, CNN was way, way behind the other networks in declaring winners. The network has always believed it’s better to be right than to be first, but never to the point of forcing people to change the channel in order to figure out what the rest of the country already knew.

But for the abundant airtime given to Tapper, Tuesday night’s programming lacked any noticeable twists from Chris Licht, the chairman and C.E.O. who, until now, was best known for his talents as an executive producer of news and late night. Oddly, Licht didn’t even want to take credit for Tapper’s obvious promotion. On Wednesday, a network spokesperson told The Los Angeles Times that the decision to make Tapper the lead anchor on election night was made by Licht’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker—an accurate statement that nevertheless came off sounding like a dodge and an excuse.

CNN’s struggles on Tuesday are, of course, indicative of a far larger problem. Last week, despite the barn-burning heat of the final throes of an historic midterm election cycle, the network drew its smallest audience in seven years. CNN This Morning, one of Licht’s two big programming moves, is averaging 380,000 total viewers—less than half the number watching MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Licht’s old home and the industry icon—and just 81,000 in the demo. (Ryan Kadro, CNN’s chief content officer and a longtime Licht deputy, has asked people to give the show some time to find its footing. Fair enough.) And, with Tapper failing in primetime and returning to afternoons, the important primetime lineup is once again a blank slate.

CNN’s ratings woes have only heightened the anxieties of an already restive staff—a significant faction of which, as I reported recently, is losing faith in Licht’s leadership, his vision, and his ability to make good television given his various challenges. But, as I’ve also noted, ratings may now be a less appropriate measurement for CNN’s health than its EBITDA. After all, Licht’s tenure has been a microcosm of that of his loyal boss, David Zaslav, who has been forced by market pressures and debt obligations to trim an organization that was renowned for its bloat in the Time Warner era and wasn’t done any favors under the stewardship of the beancounters at AT&T. The challenge, of course, is that excessive cutting erodes more than just morale. The fear is that it won’t only be CNN’s ratings or cash flow that declines, but also its place in the culture, too.

Both Zaz and Licht will make an effort to address these concerns in the days ahead. On Thursday, I’m told, Zaz will host a town hall for Warner Bros. Discovery employees, which Licht will participate in. And Licht will host his own town hall for CNN employees next Tuesday, employees there tell me. Zaz, of course, will need to assuage the fears of those who wonder how a $24 billion company can overcome nearly $50 billion in debt. But Licht faces an equally imposing challenge: explaining how CNN will succeed in a world where, increasingly, no one is watching. 

This article has been updated.