Relax, the Ratings Hill Jake Tapper Had to Climb Was Always Steep

Did anyone really expect 'The Lead' to pull in big ratings right off the bat?

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The December announcement that CNN had hired ABC White House correspondent Jake Tapper to host his own show sent media watchers and political types buzzing. For one, Tapper was an experienced political reporter, a well-respected author and a social media maven. Secondly, his show was the first new programming announced under CNN president Jeff Zucker's reign, the former NBC exec tasked with rebooting the struggling cable news network.

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Despite all the inside-the-Beltway excitement, there was little splash with the first week of his 4 p.m. hourlong show (perhaps a reminder of how small the political-media bubble truly is). Ratings took a significant dip, down 39 percent from "The Situation Room" in that time slot the previous week and down 32 percent in the same week from last year.

But Tapper was facing an uphill challenge, says Professor Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture and television at Syracuse University. "He is on CNN, which has certainly gotten inertia going against it."

For one, there is typically a very limited audience to grab in the 4 p.m. hour for cable news. Fewer than 3 million people—about the audience of an episode of "Mad Men," which isn't much—tuned in to FOX, MSNBC, CNN and CNN Headline News total during March 18's ("The Lead's" debut) 4 p.m. slot.

"CNN does great when there's breaking news," says Thompson, "but they have not been able to find people to host these shows that people want to watch whether or not there is breaking news happening."

FOX is the pioneer in addressing this challenge, by bringing on a number pundits for conservative "opinion" programming. MSNBC followed suit, adopting left-leaning correspondents and programming. Opinion broadcasting is easier to pull off, says Thompson, "because you have a relatively clear formula and you just have to keep trying people until you find somebody who sticks." But CNN still appears to be resisting that model, sticking to a middle-of-the-road approach to news reporting.

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On "The Lead," Tapper cycles through formulaicly named segments that cover a range of news stories: "The Politics Lead," "The World Lead," "The Pop Culture Lead," "The Sports Lead," etc. So far he has brought on some noteworthy guests—comedians Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey—and in their discussions, Tapper showed off his reporting chops.

Writing at Mediaite, Noah Rothman praised Tapper's first week of programming, but suggested that "The Lead" shed some of the lighter, pop culture-y fair, and rather dig into the harder political and international news beats that gained Tapper accolades in the first place.

"Whether, as he claims in his show's promos, Tapper enjoys those daily departures from the domestic or international political story of the day, these segments have the feel of a contrived thematic estuary intended to ease the viewer from CNN's dayside panel debates about whatever is gracing Yahoo!'s front page into Wolf Blitzer's gritty The Situation Room. They are unnecessary and unsatisfying."

Thompson, however, disagrees. "A lot of the prediction is that he is going to have to diversify the subject to get people to watch that show, because, face it, they're watching for news, but they're also watching these shows to be entertained."

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It will take weeks, maybe months, for "The Lead" to settle into its signature formula, and months, maybe years to gain a following, if that's what's in the cards for it, Thompson says. "It's not science. It's show business."

But whether CNN will give Tapper that time and whether he, an old-school newsman, will indeed be "the face of new CNN," as Zucker called him, remains to be seen. Zucker is reportedly courting Elisabeth Hasselbeck who, as a "Survivor" alumni and host of ABC's "The View," is as fluffy as they come in media.