"They've got to find a way, if they want to go back to that old-fashioned storytelling, to fill the beast," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the project. That's going to take more money, because hard news is more expensive to produce than pundit shows, and the company will have to bear those costs at a time when the influx of new cable subscribers is thinning.
What CNN can't afford to do is to repeatedly revise its strategy.
"One of the things that doesn't work in TV news is changing your mind every couple of years," Rosenstiel says. "It creates a kind of brand dissonance."
There's the key word, because the big difference between CNN and its competitors lies in definition: CNN is a brand spread across multiple properties, not simply a news network. Just as CNN/U.S. offers its viewers news on demand, the CNN News Group offers its customers whatever information they want, however and whenever they want it, not to mention its advertisers any permutation of television/radio/web/wireless advertising they can conceive.
CNN has a great brand and an international foothold that its competitors would love to claim, says Gigi Johnson, executive director of the Entertainment and Media Management Institute at UCLA's Anderson School of Management. CNN has also found new ways to package its news and deliver it to people the way they like it - in customized e-mail blasts, for instance. The lingering question is whether the CNN brass have been willing to edge far enough out on the branch to really reinvigorate the business. "This is a nice, solid strategy," Johnson says of CNN's efforts to date, "but perhaps it isn't adventurous enough."
In a way, she says, CNN's biggest challenge is just dealing with its maturity. The cable news outfit started out in the media business as a brash, risk-taking upstart that lost money for Turner Broadcasting; today, it's a solid corporate citizen. She wonders if CNN is willing to take big gambles again. Are they willing to lose big sums in a high-stakes game of revamping a successful strategy?