CNN targets younger viewers with Buzzfeed deal

The media odd couple plan a 'mashup' format infused with a heavy dose of humor.

By Jonathan Berr May 29, 2013 7:07AM
File photo of the CNN Center in Atlanta (© Richard Cummins/Corbis)
License: 1 yearTime Warner's (TWX) CNN ratings in April doubled among viewers age 25-54, fueled by intense interest in the Boston Marathon bombings and Washington scandals, according to The New York Times. But those high numbers could be short-lived.

When the news dies down, people return to their usual shows. Or in the case of younger viewers, they increasingly keep their televisions turned off entirely. To combat this trend, CNN is joining forces with Buzzfeed, which recently ran a slideshow showing 14 CEOs and their shark doppelgangers, to create a channel on YouTube.

Exactly what the oddest pairing on TV since "Will and Grace" -- or, if you're older, Felix Unger and Oscar Madison in "The Odd Couple" -- have in mind isn't terribly clear.

As The Wall Street Journal notes, Buzzfeed is trying to establish itself as a news source for 18- to 34-year-olds. The channel will use the "mashup" format developed by Buzzfeed using text and photos infused with a heavy dose of humor. But there's a disconnect here that both companies will have to resolve.

Ali Velshi, the former CNN anchor who recently left to join Al-Jazeera America, noted Tuesday in Quartz that average cable news viewers are in their 60s, which makes them of little interest to advertisers convinced those viewers are too set in their ways when it comes to brands. Young people also have less loyalty to mainstream media than older viewers. A startling 49 million news consumers consider themselves to be underserved by cable news, in a survey quoted by Velshi.

Perhaps that's the market the two companies should target.

CNN head Jeff Zucker is under intense pressure to increase the channel's audience without alienating existing viewers -- not an easy task. Last year, the network earned about $335 million in ad revenue, according to the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism. That was down from $347.8 million a year earlier and less than half of the $736.8 million generated by ratings leader Fox News Channel, owned by News Corp. (NWS).

Teaming up with Buzzfeed isn't quite a "hail Mary" pass for CNN, but it does show that the network is willing to try almost anything to increase its audience beyond the traditional one for news. It's a gamble that CNN must take.

Jonathan Berr does not own shares of the listed stocks. Follow him on Twitter @jdberr.

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