Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent is "very unhappy" with CNN's primetime ratings, but said the news network won't resort to tricks to increase viewership.
CNN ratings hit a 20-year low in May and speaking at the Nomura U.S. Media & Telecom Summit Thursday, Kent said the company had plans to improve the quality of its broadcasts and increase viewership.
Kent said the ratings problems had two causes, some he called environmental and the others "self-inflicted."
Over the years, CNN has benefited from breaking news and in the first five months of this year, there have been few big stories, especially compared to last year's rush of unrest in the Middle East, tsunamis, reactor meltdowns and earthquakes.
Even the election has been "pretty boring to people," said Kent, who expects interest in politics to heat up.
"This is not an excuse. It's just a fact," said Kent, calling those factors about half the problem.
The self-inflected problems stems from the fact that "we haven't put the best shows on the air," he said.
Kent said CNN's current primetime lineup still has "very high potential." He called Anderson Cooper a television news star who "at this moment is not getting a star's ratings and that's because of lead-ins."
But Kent also offered support for Erin Burnett and Piers Morgan, whose shows lead into Coopers'.
He calls Burnett "a great get for us," but said "that show should be doing better. I think that show can do better. I think it's just a question of a terrific talent with the right staff around her playing as much to her strengths as possible."
Kent also said the company believes strongly in Morgan, who replaced CNN mainstay Larry King. "I think he's a tremendous interviewer," he said, adding that "it seems to be that when he is interviewing people that are in the news in a meaningful way, the show works better than a typical celebrity interview. I don't really know what to make of that yet."
Of the rest of CNN's lineup, "we have some other shows that probably need to be replaced. This is an execution issue and to me, this is TV 101."
Kent said the challenge of raising CNN's ratings is unique because "there are lots of ways to get ratings and every local news director has some tricks up their sleeve to get ratings. We choose not to do that."
He said that, contrary to some published reports, his boss, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes has not been hammering him about CNN's ratings.
"The pressure on all of us, on me, on the CNN management from me is to raise the quality and the consistency of the quality," he said. "I am a firm believer that if we raise the quality of these shows and make them a little surprising -- sometimes also it's also a little repetitive throughout the day -- if we raise the quality and we do it with consistency the ratings will be just fine. I can't tell you that we'll beat this one or that one. But they'll be a hell of a lot better than they are right now and we'll be fine."
Kent said CNN ratings have not been a factor in recent carriage negotiations with distributors.
He said he's expecting TNT's ratings to rebound in the second half of the year, as TBS' already have, and that the company will be recording significant increases in carriage fees as its deals with cable operators expire between 2014 and 2016.
Turner's fees have been undervalued since it gave up the NFL. Now after increasing spending on original programming and sports deals for key events like the NCAA Men's Division I College Basketball Championship, it has more must-have programming, Kent said.
But Turner prefers not to negotiate in public or take out ads telling consumers that they might lose some of their favorite channels.
"That's led to a misperception we're too passive," Kent said. But he said Turner has already gotten "significant growth" in sub fees on the back of the NCAAs and other programming investments.