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CNN's Ratings Woes: A Brand Problem

I have been thinking about why CNN's ratings are down. Uneven genericism - like the half-and-half at Starbucks - that awkward space between taking a stand and having none.

It's that, unlike say MSNBC ("Lean Forward" - radical left) or FOX ("Fair and Balanced - steadfastly right) they resist owning their brand.

CNN refuses to take a clear position in the customer's mind, in the market.

When I watch a news channel I am looking at three things simultaneously:

1. The story itself - the what

2. The choice of story - the why

3. The mode of delivery - the how

Except for CBS's 60 Minutes, the old days of journalistic objectivity - the attempt at it, the pretense of it - are gone.

That's not OK with me, but I understand they are there to sell papers (airtime) and bias is a fact of life.

Anyway, personality is interesting. I enjoy listening to all kinds of views.

But with CNN it's never clear what I'm getting. The brand is not consistent.

Whereas jn the past they seemed more like the Bible of centrist news coverage, now they seem sometimes center, sometimes left.

This is evident in the stories they cover, and the ones they don't - CBS and FOX picked up on Fast & Furious early on, while CNN, NBC, and ABC let it languish despite the explosive nature of the facts.

Now they cover it, but in an odd, reluctant way that seems to cut off a genuine interchange.

For example, whereas Rachel Maddow of MSNBC says flatly what she thinks of the whole thing (irrelevant, basically), CNN's Soledad O'Brien claims to be "keeping them honest" yet sympathizes with the Left.

Last night she had an oddly lengthy sympathetic interview with someone who wrote an article disputing the whistleblower's account. Then she attacked Rep. John Mica, who simply said that one magazine story should not impede an investigation by Congress. (Not that he wasn't condescending. He was.)

This points up the issue of brand personality. While one attribute CNN always owned was expertise, now their leads are uneven.

On the positive side, Anderson Cooper seems to be both informed and objective. Fareed Zakaria, an expert. Piers Morgan gets right to the point.

Others are less so.

Bottom line: If you are biased, fine - just be like MSNBC's Chris Matthews and say so. (Where is Christiane Amanpour? Still around at CNN but I miss her pervasive presence.)

The lesson for us is that in a branded world you've got to take a stand. Even if you are a journalist you take one. It's a way of acknowledging your blind spot: "OK, I bring these values to the table."

That way I, the viewer, can filter what you the journalist have to say.

Everybody has a bias. Everyone has interests. But the honest thing to do - and ultimately the best one for the brand - is to make them clear and be accountable for them.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Capital Punishment of a Different Kind

Yesterday I was talking to a friend on the phone.

"You know that bus monitor they are showing on TV?"

"Yeah," I said, knowing instantly she meant Karen Klein.

"You have no idea what I'm going through," she said, referring to work.

"They are treating me terribly."

My friend is not a glamour girl, and she doesn't have friend in high places. But she's great at what she does. And for whatever reason, "they" just don't "like" her.

The latest incident was benign enough. "They" got together and brought in coffee. 

There it sat, steamy and delicious and inviting.

Everyone gathered around the hot cardboard box. Pouring, chatting, and swirling those little half-and-half packets around with lots of sugar or Splenda.

Nobody talked to my friend.

There are lots of ways to kill people. In Bible class I learned about stoning. HBO had a show about it, "Six Feet Under." The Spike network had a stupid show, "1,000 Ways To Die."

But one really quiet way to do it, is simply not to talk to people. Shunning. It's the most painful thing you can do, and 100% legal.

"And her soul is cut off from her people." In the Bible, that's the worst punishment you can get -  perpetual excommunication:

When someone is kicked to the ground you can see the bullying.

When you hear the taunts, and see them spelled out in a caption at the bottom of the screen, you can feel that twinge as well.

But when hostility and aggression take the form of shunning - simply keeping people out of the loop - it is easy not to see it, or to pretend you don't. To avert your eyes.

It's death by a thousand stinging needles.

So maybe the real meaning of inclusion is to include shunned people. 

And earn a few karma points for the next go-round, when the person in the target sights  might be you.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

The Genius Of The Container Store

The best tagline ever: "Contain Yourself."

People like me - Generation Xers with obligations - lead a crazy life.

We juggle family time, "me" time, job time, volunteer time, writing time, housework time, appointment time, fun time, religion time, and even car time.

We lead chaotic lives.

The Container Store really gets that. You walk in the door and right away, it's all under control.

It's - yes - contained!

I bought a cord holder for my iPhone cord for $3.99. I can't get the cord out from the cord holder. Don't care. In my mind, life is under control.

Love it!

In The Container Store life is very orderly. The closet, the kitchen, the office - it's all taken care of.

I still think that mostly Moms take care of the family.

The Container Store specializes in taking care of Mom.

For half an hour and a minimal, negligible purchase, they make us feel like anyone can have it all!

Movie Review: "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World"

I really loved this movie.

I wasn't going to write about it, honestly, because for most of it I just sat there crying. It affected me on that level where you can't exactly put it into words.

Decided to try anyway. Won't give away any secrets.

The plot of the movie is evident in the name. What's different is the focus on feelings.

Whereas most end-of-the-world movies are big on action and special effects, here all of that is muted. We are left with a lot of lonely people trying to connect one last time before everything ends.

To see the trailer you would think that Steve Carell ("Dodge") is the star. He's not. Basically he plays his type - sort of wooden, awkward, solemn. He does it well, but it's one-dimensional. (My husband said that he basically continued the same character from "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and he was right.)

We've seen many movies where the man is sort of "normal" or traditional and falls for a kooky-type gal:

* Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston in "Along Came Polly"

* Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

* Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall" (and "Manhattan")

In this movie the female lead, Knightley ("Penny") takes the stage. Like Winslet and Keaton before her (not Aniston, who I like more as a personality than as an actress) she insists on making her character complex.
 Whereas Dodge can barely emerge from his shell, no matter what the situation - Knightley is always ALIVE. Alive.

Dodge sees people in simple terms - as objects - black and white, good or bad. "You are my favorite thing" he says at one point, as he comes to appreciate Penny.

But Penny is always complicated. Her mind operates on many levels at once. She is, as one former boyfriend points out, a survivor on the inside, but on the outside she seems very fragile. Like a little kid.

You have to see this movie to see what's beautiful about it. It's not like any other I have ever seen. The characters, the script, the subtlety, the humor. It was actually brilliant.

The movie made me think about the obvious things. Who matters to me, what I want to be spending my time on, priorities.

But it also set me thinking about some issues that are more subtle. These are things to be used not just as a communicator but as a person, too.

Basically what makes a communication satisfying is when two people connect - as thinking subject to thinking subject.

When it's not satisfying - what creates loneliness - is when the connection is superficial.

My kids can always tell when I am paying attention. They are satisfied with a short conversation that has real meaning.

But when I'm on the iPhone and I go "mm-hmm," they always catch me. They go, "Mom, get off your device and pay attention!"

If I walk away with anything from this movie it is to try and be more mindful of what people say. To listen more closely. Not to be distracted and thinking about "to-dos." Not tapping away on the smartphone. Not waiting for my turn to talk. Just listen.

It's a hard thing to do but I think the effort will be worth it.

P.S. By the way I'm trying out Disqus on my site for comments, let me know what you think. Another effort to move forward on the communication front...listening.