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LOS ANGELES — With the Democratic and Republican national conventions just days away, there’s already suspense behind the camera: CNN is staring down one of the worst crises in its 32-year existence.


The cable news network that dominated the political discussion during the 1990s has slumped to record ratings lows this year, with its prime-time audience plunging by more than 40 percent compared with four years ago (No. 1 Fox News and runner-up MSNBC have each posted double-digit increases). Critics are attacking the Time Warner-owned network’s coverage as dull and rudderless. CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton recently announced he will leave at the end of the year, observing that CNN needs “new thinking.”


Many industry watchers say change is long overdue, but CNN sees the presidential campaign as an opportunity to prove the doubters wrong. Its new multimillion-dollar studio in Washington is arriving just in time for the President Obama-versus-Mitt Romney showdown, even if the convention coverage itself doesn’t necessarily promise changes that will make viewers snap to attention. The network will start the convention coverage every morning at 5 Eastern time and continue right through a midnight interview show hosted by Piers Morgan, who hosts its flagship prime-time interview program.


As during the primaries this year, there will be round tables overseen by Anderson Cooper — perhaps the network’s biggest star — and other anchors, along with a stable of commentators such as the liberal James Carville and his conservative wife, Mary Matalin. Statistics guru John King will work his hands over the “magic wall” of the electoral college once more — in fact, the new studio has two such computerized graphics boards, for even more “Minority Report”-like razzle-dazzle. It will be the first time CNN has managed its convention coverage from Washington.


“In the next six months, there’s going to be a huge amount of viewer interest,” said Wolf Blitzer, the veteran CNN anchor and reporter who will be a prominent face at the conventions. “I think people will come back and watch us.”


Staffers argue that it is CNN’s refusal to “take sides,” in contrast to the sharp partisanship in the Fox and MSNBC nightly lineups, that lends the network its value during a highly charged presidential contest. “I actually don’t think most Americans want to be told how to vote,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief.


But some influential observers wonder if CNN isn’t redefining the meaning of corporate denial.


Jacob Weisberg, editor in chief of the Slate group, said Twitter has sped up the pace of campaign news and information, making TV increasingly an also-ran in political coverage. CNN is suffering the most, he argues. “CNN’s problem is not that it’s neutral; it’s that it’s bad,” he said. “They need to fire most of their people and start over.”


Such an assessment might sound unfairly harsh, but Weisberg is hardly the only one voicing it. The man who will be tasked with trying to fix the network, Time Warner Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes, told reporters this month he is “not happy” with the ratings and that the programming needs to be more compelling. CNN is confronting a TV world utterly transformed since founder Ted Turner coined the mantra “News is the star” to guide his quixotic cable network in the 1980s. And at no time is the altered landscape thrown into greater relief than during the presidential campaigns, when the networks trot out their best and brightest to help Americans make sense of the political maneuverings — and, the networks hope, to convert them into regular viewers.


Morgan, the British interviewer and talent-show judge hired last year to replace Larry King in prime time, said he understands CNN is at a turning point. This year, the network has floundered with few major running stories besides the presidential contest to capture viewers’ imagination (interest in the mass killings at a movie theater in Colorado and a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, for example, ebbed after viewers got the initial news).


“When there’s no news for sustained periods of time, CNN tends to deflate as a network,” Morgan said. “There’s a lot of internal debate going on about tone and opinion. I’ve been given more license to express my opinion. We need to be livelier, more provocative, more opinionated. I know we can be more opinionated without being partisan.”


Morgan has seen such low numbers that this year, greeting the crowd in a convention auditorium, he cracked that it was a bigger crowd than he had seen in a while. But even Morgan — not known for self-doubt or lack of clarity — seems a bit hazy on the best way out of CNN’s plight. At one point, he said, “It’s not rocket science. It’s bleeding obvious.” But how much opinion is too much? How can CNN exploit opinion in a way that doesn’t damage its long-cherished desire to make news the star, to avoid “taking sides”?


Morgan admitted: “It’s incredibly tricky.”


CNN’s predicament is a stunning reversal from years past, when the network was a news colossus.


During the 2000 Democratic National Convention in downtown Los Angeles, for example, CNN was still atop the cable ratings, with Fox just beginning to nip at its heels. For a channel that barely 10 years earlier has been ridiculed as “Chicken Noodle News” — in early days, the network operated at such a low level that a reporter was caught on live camera picking his nose — CNN enjoyed an exhilarating perch. Turner’s network occupied premium skybox space at Staples Center, with then stars such as King and Greta van Susteren prowling the halls and chatting up political luminaries. The upstart Fox News was relegated to trailers and tents in a cramped parking lot, where a tall, ambitious and opinionated program host sat slumped, writing his own copy. That was Bill O’Reilly.


The following year brought the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Fox, owned by right-leaning media kingpin Rupert Murdoch and led by former Richard Nixon operative Roger Ailes, exploited the surge of patriotism sweeping the country by putting the image of a rippling American flag onscreen. Liberals called it a cynical stunt, but many viewers liked the chyron flag, and it became a Fox signature. The network emphasized colorful graphics and attractive anchors during the day, then at night pushed pugnacious, right-of-center hosts like Sean Hannity and O’Reilly — whose “The O’Reilly Factor” became the top-rated cable news show not long after. CNN, meanwhile, stuck with middle-of-the-road, not-overtly political anchors such as Blitzer and the since-departed Aaron Brown, and later, Cooper and Erin Burnett, the latter an import from NBC.


The viewers’ verdict has been decisive. Fox brushed past CNN in the ratings early in the last decade and has solidified its lead while its longtime nemesis has crumbled. MSNBC, which struggled to find its footing for years, has recently seen strong ratings growth by giving a soapbox to popular liberals such as Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell and the now departed Keith Olbermann.


At the moment, CNN — still headquartered in its birthplace of Atlanta — looks locked in a downward spiral. In July, CNN averaged just 519,000 total viewers in weeknight prime time, a shocking 42 percent slide since July 2008, according to Nielsen. Fox has meanwhile risen 18 percent, to just over 2 million, during the same period, while MSNBC has climbed 37 percent, to 855,000.


Surprisingly, the rating hemorrhage hasn’t shoved CNN into the red, at least not yet. According to media research firm SNL Kagan, CNN’s U.S. network will earn in 2012 about $400 million on just over $1 billion in revenue from ad sales and subscriber fees. But those numbers have remained stubbornly flat over the last few years.


Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, pointed out that healthy revenues for CNN International, which operates around the world, virtually ensure a handsome return for Time Warner, which faces plenty of other challenges, as with its slumping magazines. That may help explain why the pace of change has remained slow as U.S. rivals have zoomed past CNN’s domestic network.


“This is going to be a really good year for CNN, despite all the stories by media writers,” Feist said. “CNN’s ratings have peaks and valleys that are higher and lower than those of our competitors. We have a different product.”


“This is our Olympics, every four years,” Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, said by phone.


Griffin is talking about the party conventions, which are a veritable showcase for cable news networks. The GOP, expected to nominate Mitt Romney with Paul Ryan as his running mate, will go first from Tampa, Fla., starting Monday (hurricanes permitting). The Democrats will follow the next week from Charlotte, N.C., and will renominate President Obama.


The broadcast networks began covering these conclaves in the 1950s and saw a great deal of success with them until the rise of cable. But over time, ABC, CBS and NBC — which used to lavish air time and news resources on the election horse races — have gradually whittled convention time to about one hour per night as cable networks have filled the gap with nonstop coverage that usually draws a robust audience. Historians say that the media changes reflect shifts in the nature of the conventions themselves.


“There is so little news being made now at the conventions,” said Jeffrey McCall, a communications professor at DePauw University. “The conventions have no real deliberations on platform issues and the VP picks are all made well in advance and have already been introduced to the public.


“The main, real value for voters in watching the conventions is that they can see the candidates and hear their pitches in one place, without having to follow campaign stump speeches over many days of news coverage,” McCall added. “Another benefit is for voters to see up and coming party leaders who might be influential on the political landscape in years to come.”


But for cable networks, the conventions mean something else. They are a chance to make an impression on (hopefully) impressionable viewers. “This is our opportunity to show people how good we are at covering politics,” Griffin said. For MSNBC, that will mean covering the campaigns from what Griffin dubbed a “progressive” point of view. For Fox News (which declined to comment on the record for this story), it will mean continuing to offer plenty of right-wing perspective during prime time.


And for CNN? That’s still an open question.


Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media, sounded a discouraging note about prospects for the middle-of-the-road network. “There is no longer appointment viewing on the network. Also people (especially young people) get news and information around the clock,” he said.


“It’s possible to turn it around, but it gets harder and harder with each passing year. They have to create a franchise show first that can compete with Fox News and MSNBC and anyone else, and rebuild from there. It’s a great brand name, and that will help.”


“When Larry King started, there was no competition,” said Morgan. “Now, CNN, in the middle, has been squeezed. Everyone at CNN realizes the game has changed.”


———


WHAT THE NETWORKS HAVE PLANNED


CNN is planning nearly round-the-clock coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Here’s a look at what some other networks have in store:


ABC: Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos will co-anchor coverage during the 10 p.m. hour during both the Democratic and GOP conventions. In addition, ABC News is teaming with Yahoo to offer more than 30 hours of streaming coverage online. ABC will also tap a recent deal with Spanish-language broadcaster Univision for news content aimed at Latino viewers.


CBS: A one-hour nightly wrap-up will be anchored by Scott Pelley, joined by “Face the Nation’s” Bob Schieffer and “CBS This Morning” co-host Norah O’Donnell. Correspondent Bill Whitaker will report from Tampa at the GOP confab, while Byron Pitts will walk the floor in Charlotte with Democratic delegates.


Fox News Channel: For the Republican convention, co-hosts Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly will cover the proceedings, with analysis from Brit Hume, Juan Williams, Bill Kristol and others. (Fox hadn’t released its Democratic convention plans as of deadline, but the personnel are expected to be the same.)


NBC/ MSNBC: Brian Williams will anchor nightly reports from both Tampa and Charlotte, with an assist from his “Nightly News” predecessor and mentor, Tom Brokaw. “Today” and NBCNews.com will offer additional coverage. MSNBC is planning about 20 hours per day worth of coverage.

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