Media watchers took notice on Thursday when CNN sent out a press release detailing its incredibly extensive coverage plans for the final leg of the journey of the Carnival Triumph cruise ship, which has been struck with power failures and squalid conditions for five days. The release made clear that CNN was going all in:
CNN’s Erin Burnett will anchor "Erin Burnett OutFront" from Mobile, Alabama, where the ship will dock. Sandra Endo covers the ship’s arrival by helicopter; Victor Blackwell monitors by boat; and David Mattingly and Martin Savidge report from the dock in Mobile. CNN.com/live and the CNN apps will live stream the docking. CNN International will simulcast the arrival later tonight.
On Saturday at 7:30pmET and 10:30pmET, CNN will broadcast "Cruise from Hell: Stranded at Sea," a 30 minute special reported by Martin Savidge.
CNN wound up going beyond even that: during much of the late morning and early afternoon, there was literally no other story for the channel.
Fox News talked about various matters, and MSNBC talked about the Chuck Hagel nomination and other political stories, but CNN had eyes only for the ship. The network devoted at least an hour of commercial-free coverage of its journey. The helicopter zoomed in and out, the correspondents reported from land and boat and studio, and the words "CNN Live Exclusive" were plastered in the top right hand corner of the screen the whole time. Though it would eventually cut away, the ship continued to dominate the day. There was often not all that much to report on — one chyron told viewers that the ship was traveling "slower than a walk" — but the network stuck with the story.
CNN's helicopter also meant that cameras could get close to the passengers on the ship. At one point, anchor Ashleigh Banfield connected a mother who was on land with her daughter, and the network broadcast the entire conversation, including a discussion about whether the girl would be able to eat McDonald's when she got home. The network splashed the headline, "CNN SHOWS MOM STRANDED GIRL."
It was not hard news, and it was not the most "important" story that CNN could have been covering. Jon Stewart will probably have a field day. But it was, if anyone needed it, a reminder that television news is still television — and it was very attention-grabbing. Substitute Matt Lauer for Banfield, and it could have easily been seen on "Today." (The cruise ship was second only to the Oscar Pistorius murder allegations on that show's Thursday edition.)
Coincidentally (or not), "Today" happens to be where new CNN chief Jeff Zucker cut his teeth. Zucker has made clear that he wants to, in his words, "broaden the definition of news," and the Triumph story provided a chance to do just that. The grumbling about the newsworthiness of the story was also a good preview of the kind of pushback CNN is likely to receive as it plunges into softer territory. Even so, it's not as if CNN was always spending its pre-Zucker days moderating in-depth discussions about education policy and economic trends in South America.