CNN is suffering from a steep decline in viewership, but the network still has a lock on at least one captive audience: travelers in 58 airports around the country.
The network has enjoyed a monopoly on dozens of airport televisions since 1991, despite suffering from low ratings that have managed to erode even further in the Trump era. That problem even made headlines last month, when the network’s primetime lineup hit a three-year low for the week of Nov. 25. CNN drew 643,000 viewers for the period, compared to 1.3 million for MSNBC and 2.2 million for Fox News. That means CNN drew just 15 percent of the available audience, compared to 53 percent for Fox.
Considering the network’s poor standing, some viewers believe it’s time for airports to change the channel, including Alaska’s Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor Rodney Dial. As a member of the assembly in 2018, Dial drafted a proposal that would have directed Ketchikan International Airport to reduce CNN’s airtime.
“Many are not happy that CNN has a monopoly and that no diversity of news is offered,” Dial, a former Alaska state trooper, said in an interview with the Daily Caller. “My proposal was not to remove CNN entirely, but to assure balance by airing other news outlets for an equal amount of time.” He added that his constituents perceived CNN “more as propaganda than unbiased news.” (RELATED: CNN To Start Making Freelancers Wait 3 Months For Payment)
While Dial’s proposal failed by a 5-1 vote, it may have bolstered his standing among voters. The borough elected him as mayor in October.
One reason airports are happy to retain CNN is the cash it’s willing to shell out. Public documents indicate CNN offered the Miami-Dade International Airport $150,000 annually for its most recent contract, which will expire in 2024. Documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution indicated CNN is paying $225,000 each year for rights to the airport in Atlanta, where CNN is headquartered. It also provides LCD monitors, as well as the equipment to install them.
At more than $100,000 per contract, it’s safe to estimate CNN is shelling out well over $6 million annually to retain its 58-airport presence.
That’s before accounting for the number of staff members needed to produce CNN Airport Network, the specialized operation responsible for ensuring airport viewers only see “appropriate” content. If an air-travel accident takes place, for instance, the network promises to scrub the incident from airport televisions to avoid unsettling travelers.
Fox and MSNBC, meanwhile, have expressed no interest in competing for airport televisions. And while CNN claims on promotional literature that its airport operation reaches 329 million viewers each year, the value proposition still isn’t clear. A spokesman for Nielsen, the company that calculates network ratings, said the network can’t provide enough information to take that claim into account. (RELATED: Think Google Controls The News? It’s Worse Than You Think, Experts Say)
Jeff McCall, a journalism professor at DePauw University, suggested it was about credibility, even if viewers weren’t watching. “CNN got into the airport arena well before Fox News or MSNBC were even operating,” McCall said. “It’s important for the channel’s image as a player on the national news stage, but the screens are more about advertising CNN than actually disseminating information or news to viewers.
“Given CNN’s ratings challenges in recent years and concerns about bias, it is a good bet that many airport passengers just overlook the CNN video monitors as wallpaper or video billboards,” McCall added. “My guess is that many people would acknowledge they saw the CNN monitor while cruising through the airport, but couldn’t tell you very much about the content on the screen at any given time.”
CNN declined to comment.