Last year, Jeff Bewkes, the ruler of Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX), took a pay cut of 1%, to $25.9 million -- peanuts compared to Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) CEO Bob Iger’s $31.4 million or Discovery Communications Inc.
(Nasdaq: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK) CEO David Zaslaf’s $52.4 million. Bewkes
said he took the cut because “the company did not surpass financial
targets by as great an amount as it did in 2010.”
Bewkes also is reportedly upset about the ratings decline at Time Warner’s CNN. As well he should be.
April was the cruelest month for CNN/US -- its lowest rated month since August 2001, according to Nielsen. The once-leading cable news network now has even fewer viewers than MSNBC,
despite its latest makeover, which was hailed by CNN’s flugelhorn
blowers as the best thing to happen to TV since the invention of
What’s wrong with CNN? The basic problem, dating back to its founding
in 1980, is a bad business plan. There aren’t enough news junkies out
there, especially in the 55-to-death demographic (as they are called by
the ad agency madmen), who still prefer watching the news the
old-fashioned way: from the couch or La-Z-Boy.
CNN gets its best numbers in times of disaster (earthquakes,
hurricanes, plane crashes). TV viewers are like rubberneckers who slow
down to see the mayhem on the highway. People are just hungry for
vicarious excitement. Isn’t it awful? As crass as it may sound, there
just aren’t enough disasters, ratings-wise.
News itself has become boring. It has a been-there, done-that quality
these days. Republicans hate Obama. Obama calls Republicans the party
of the fat cats. Nothing seems to change. The Greek debt crisis has been
going on for two years, maybe more. Hot news would be if there weren’t a
Greek debt crisis.
The biggest disappointment, though, is the new faces CNN has brought
in for the new, improved, more exciting CNN of the future. No matter how
many Soledad O’Briens and Erin Burnetts the CNN talent-hunters
discover, and no matter how much hair spray you spritz on the schedule,
nothing compares to the failure to find a replacement for Larry King as
the iconic voice of CNN.
Whatever Larry’s weaknesses were as a rival to Mike Wallace as an
interrogator, Larry was an American institution, even if I admired only
his taste in suspenders. After a quarter of a century, his ratings were
melting like a Popsicle on a summer day on the sidewalks of New York.
But what programming genius came up with the idea of replacing him
with Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan (aka Piers Morgan)? What a coup.
A judge and contestant on reality TV shows (Britain's Got Talent, America's Got Talent, The Celebrity Apprentice),
he is also an often-fired pillar of British journalism (The Sun, News
of the World, The Mirror). As an editor, Morgan was famous for his lack
of concern for celebrities' rights to privacy.
There was always the chance he would bring the joie de vivre of News of the World tabloid journalism to dowdy CNN.
There are those who like the smarmy, arrogant, self-satisfied quality
he brings to CNN. Nobody I know watches the Larry King Memorial Hour
anymore. But I can see why Private Eye used to call him “Piers Moron.”
What I would have done is replace King Larry with another legend: Ted
Turner, the founding father of CNN and once Time Warner’s largest
stockholder (“A million shares more or less,” as he used to say). After
being pushed into unwanted retirement by former Time Warner honcho
Gerald M. Levin –- one of CNBC's "Worst American CEOs of All Time"
-- the Mouth of the South went back to his home on the range in
Montana, where seldom is heard a discouraging word. (What can you expect
a buffalo to say?)
Ted was a joy covering on the TV beat. We never knew what he was
going to say at press conferences. Neither did he, it was said. He was
totally unpredictable, with a flair for overdramatic language and
outrageous statements. Funny and fearless, he was a Green even before Al
Gore's An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar. Saving the planet and
the world from nuclear destruction, corporate democracy, denouncing the
fat cat networks that were destroying TV... all the producers had to do
was wind him up and let him talk about whatever crossed his mind.
True, some people consider him a nut. But Ted would be a shot of
electricity into the limping CNN. Why, I’d even put him on opposite The O’Reilly Factor at 8 o’clock on Fox News, ending O'Reilly's 15-year reign of terror.
Ted Turner would be the Howard Beale we have been waiting for since Network.