At 7 p.m., CNN bets on Burnett as a bridge
Erin Burnett was sitting in her glass-walled office overlooking Columbus Circle recently, considering the literal timespan that is the 7 p.m. hour of CNN's primetime schedule.
“At 7 o’clock I do think you have a little bit of that bridge, and that changeover, which can be a challenge, but can also be an opportunity to do a wider variety of stories,” Burnett said.
As Burnett, and any sentient cable news viewer knows, CNN's primetime, once the very template for cable news, has lately been in flux. While Anderson Cooper has remained a stalwart at 8 p.m., the 6 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. time slots have all undergone changes since Burnett came on board from CNBC in 2011, including an expansion into unscripted programming that looks less like a newscast and more like entertainment programming.
And yet, the channel still needs an element of stability, an anchor that can speak the daytime language of hard news as well as the more feature-driven product that is beginning to show up after 8 p.m.
Burnett's “Outfront” is a lynchpin in CNN's plan.
The anchor just signed a new, multi-year contract earlier this summer, a deal that will keep her “Outfront” at 7 p.m. for the foreseeable future. She'll also be getting her own show on CNN International later this year, comprised of segments from “Outfront,” mixed with exclusive and extended interview segments, among other content.
“Outfront” finds itself in a time slot that is tough—not just because of the strong competition (Greta Van Susteren on Fox News and Chris Matthews on MSNBC are still reliable ratings draws, and have a combined 40+ years of experience anchoring TV shows)—but also because it is something of a dividing line between dayside programming, which is still very news-centric, and primetime, which has more analysis, interviews and entertainment-style fare.
Burnett said that it has taken some time for her show to develop a formula that strikes the right balance of news, interviews and features that viewers expect from cable news.
“Over the past few years I think our show and the network have wondered which of those it is, and there has been some testing,” she said.
“[The show] has definitely evolved. It is kind of an amazing time to do this, you come into news at a time when, well what is news?,” Burnett continued. “Are people going to get their news on the internet? Are they going to get it from television? What is a nightly newscast when people can watch on-demand? Is it still giving people a reel of what they might not have focused on that day?"
While Cooper has established himself as CNN's primetime star, able to juggle field stories with politics and the "RidicuList." During the day, Wolf Blitzer is the face and the name behind world news and politics. At 7, Burnett is nestled between them, forging a voice that is both authoritative, but with a verve that is necessary in the time slot.
In some respect, Burnett and her team don't have much of a choice. While traditionally 7 p.m. has been home to straightforward newscasts, taking advantage of the same older dinner crowd that the network evening newscasts do a half hour earlier, the pressure to up the ante is always present.
As CNN shifts to add more entertainment programming in primetime, that pressure is showing up in the form of story-driven features and segments. In fact, "storytelling" was a buzzword at CNN's upfront presentation in April.
“Storytelling is really important, and is one of the things that CNN does best, and that Jeff [Zucker] has made better about CNN,” Burnett said. “Sometimes maybe CNN could be a little too ‘heres the facts ma’am,’ and a little less ‘here’s a story,’ and there is a fine balance between the two that I think Jeff has calibrated better.”
Zucker, who took over CNN in January 2013, remains quite involved in the show, Burnett said.
“The other night he emailed [executive producer] Susie [Xu] and I and said, ‘this is the best story selection you guys have had in a year,’ he watches the segments,” Burnett said, going so far as to email questions in the middle of interviews. “He is really engaged, at a level of detail. You can tell when he is not watching, because something that would have caused outrage or whatever might have slipped by him.”
Burnett’s show features a blend of the day’s top stories, newsmaker interviews and stories that Burnett and her team feel are being underreported or overlooked. She gave the example of Aimee Copeland, a young woman who lost her limbs from a rare flesh-eating bacteria. Copeland received prosthetics after a viewer saw the segment on “Outfront” and connected the family to a supplier.
Burnett recently promoted senior broadcast producer Susie Xu to executive producer of “Outfront” in January. Xu replaced Will Suratt, who launched the show as E.P., but left to join CNN’s development group.
Like Cooper, Burnett also tries to get out in the field, particularly to cover stories that others aren’t.
“When you go someplace, you see things that all the Twitter and the YouTube and the Instagram’s of the world can’t provide for you,” Burnett said. “You interact with human beings. Even with all the technology in the world, as much as it makes the world smaller, and it is all wonderful by and large, it still doesn't replace that ‘I was just there, I talked to this person.’”
Sometimes, though, being an anchor means that better results can be had from a studio. Burnett cited the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, which required her and the other CNN anchors to throw to correspondents across the country and the world.
“From a central location you can say, well here is the investigation, here is what is happening with him… being in that kind of hub, and having that around you can be powerful as well,” Burnett said. “We love to get out of the studio when we can, but I guess it is about being strategic on when those moments are.”
The program's ratings performance has largely reflected that of CNN as a whole. During the MH370 coverage earlier this year, Burnett would routinely outdo both Van Susteren and Matthews, at least in the core adults 25-54 demo. However, as CNN has struggled in the ratings where there isn’t breaking news, so has Burnett.
“When there is a war, when there are certain events, people are going to come to CNN for it, and then beyond that it is the storytelling," she said.
“There are certain moments where you want CNN to be what CNN used to be, tell the story, give me the facts, break the news,” she added. “But in between, there needs to be that rigor of reporting and investigation.”