While some analysts are attributing CNN's ratings surge in recent weeks only to the incredible crush of news happening in place like Egypt, Japan and Libya, I believe there is more to the network's success than just a staggering flow of news.
Amid all its prime-time struggles with the likes of Eliot Spitzer and Piers Morgan, CNN has found something far more important than those two prime-time poseurs: It has developed and is now refining a more compelling model of presentation for its superior worldwide journalism. I am talking about the simulcasts that CNN and CNN International have been using more and more since its Egypt coverage.
I started paying attention to it in mid-February after talking to Tony Maddox, executive vice president and managing director of CNN International, about the network's coverage of Egypt. Maddox, who had previously been responsible for international newsgathering, was now in charge of international and CNN/U.S. newsgathering, and the difference was starting to show.
I have written many times about CNN's superior international newsgathering infrastructure and how important that is to Americans getting reliable, fact-based information especially at a time of such global upheaval. The network had eight teams in Egypt. Dr. Sanjay Gupta's work in Japan was terrific.
CNN's ability to jump on a major breaking international news story like no one else was again on display Saturday with Nic Robertson in Libya as the French jets and American and British Tomahawk missiles started taking their toll. You can see some of that coverage in the video below with CNN/U.S. anchor Don Lemon and Robertson, of CNN International.
But if you click ahead past the break to a second video, you'll see an example of what I think is also making a big difference in the ratings: the pairing of such anchors as Wolf Blitzer of CNN/U.S. and Isha Sesay of CNN International as part of an increasing number of domestic and international simulcasts.
Even though they are in different cities -- usually Washington for him and Atlanta for her -- they provide a near perfect context of seriousness and energy/urgency for all the on-the-ground coverage from the latest global hotspots. The set crackles with intensity when Blitzer is on with Sesay, and each time I now see them on split screen, my brain immediately says, "This is important. Something big is happening. Pay attention." I suspect lots of viewers are having the same reaction, which is part of what's making those Nielsen People Meters warm up to CNN in more American homes.
I have long been fan of Blitzer. I think he is as good as TV journalism gets. You can read a piece I did in August on him here.
But I have to say that "The Situation Room" is a different and more compelling broadcast during the time periods when one of the international anchors is on with him.
And someone like Sesay would never be as compelling on her own. Look at the video below and let yourself feel the energy and urgency of her delivery. Much of it is the pace of her speech and use of certain adverbs and phrases, like "extremely dire," "extremely worrisome," and "fast developing." But when you match her with someone like Blitzer and the sense of seriousness he brings to the presentation, it's a perfect fit. They appear on-screen together near the end of the video.
And it is not just limited to the "chemistry" of those two. Fredericka Whitfield and Hala Gorani co-anchored in Atlanta Saturday on a special Libya report, and did an excellent job. Gorani has the same intensity as Sesay. She even uses her posture to suggest urgency-- looking like she is going to come right over the anchor desk and into your living room as she presents the news.
And I have to be frank, some of the CNN/U.S. shows desperately needed more of that sort of intensity. Some of the lowly rated shows felt like they were as dead in the water some days and nights as the nightly news on CBS. But that's not the case with what I have seen at CNN International.
I don't know if this new, improved model is all Maddox or a combination of him and other executives at CNN. But whoever is responsible for it, he, she or they certainly seem to have found a winning formula.
One note of warning amid CNN's success: Some of the tweets Saturday night from CNN folks about the U.S. Tomahawk attack on Libya seemed a little gung-ho to me.
Maybe folks are just feeling good about CNN's journalistic and ratings success these days -- and the pictures of tracer fire in night skies reminded them of CNN's glory days in Baghdad. That's understandable. But we all need to remember these Navy images of missiles are real. This isn't a video game even if the images from the Department of Defenes that we are all using make it look that way.