In the programming world, where many executives seem to channel-surf from company to company, CNN’s Jim Walton belongs to the rare breed that has spent an entire career with one employer.
“I started at an entry-level position in December of 1981,” said Walton, who started just a year and a half after CNN was launched, and just before CNN2, now called HLN, bowed in January 1982. “About 40 minutes after CNN2 came on the air, I had the honor of being the first person to eject a tape.”
Walton’s experience with every part of the company has played a major role in CNN’s successful transformation in recent years, said Turner Broadcasting System chairman and CEO Phil Kent.
“In my opinion, Jim is the best leader CNN has ever had, with the possible exception of Burt Reinhart [the network’s second president],” Kent said. “Jim took over a two-decade-old brand, which had become somewhat stodgy. The journalism was always great, but the presentation had become somewhat boring, particularly in the face of new competition.
“With a very methodical, patient approach over the last five or six years, he has basically brought back the brand, almost reinvented it from within, piece by piece,” said Kent.
While CNN continues to lag behind Fox News Channel in the cable-news ratings race, it had a record year in 2008. Primetime audiences were up 86% in the key 25-to-54 demographic, and it outperformed Fox News and MSNBC among the 18-to-49 and 18-to-34 demos.
In 2008, HLN, the former Headline News, also had a record year, with a 21% bounce in the 25-to-54 demo, and CNN Digital Network was the top online news site in terms of total minutes and page views.
Ratings have slumped in the first two months of 2009, though. Factoring out evenings where presidential debate or primary coverage drove record numbers last February, CNN would be up 20% among all viewers and 8% among 25-to-54-year-olds from the year-ago period.
Meanwhile, HLN’s ratings continue to grow, despite host Glenn Beck’s move to Fox News. In February of 2009, HLN’s primetime viewing was up 62% in the 25-to-54 demo.
That growth has also translated to the bottom line. “We closed out 2008 with our fifth consecutive year of double-digit profit growth year-over-year,” Walton said. “CNN has never done that in its history. Over that five-year period, we had a compound annual growth rate of 21%.”
However, when Walton joined CNN in 1981, the company was a struggling, money-losing startup.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film from the University of Maryland, Walton got job offers from CNN and a Washington, D.C., television station.
“CNN was offering me only $3.50 an hour to come and work for them, which was less than the $5.50 an hour I made once working in a liquor store,” Walton said. “It was a lot less than what the broadcaster was offering. I remember telling my father this is a no-brainer. 'Can you believe they are offering so little money?’ ”
But his father counseled that the startup might offer more opportunities, and Walton took the advice. Within two years, he moved to CNN Sports as an editor, and kept moving up in the ranks from there. From 1996 to 2000, he served as president of the sports-news channel CNN/Sports Illustrated while overseeing the News Group’s sports division.
Faced with limited distribution prospects, CNN/SI was eventually shut down. But not before some of its innovative programming and online strategies caught the eye of senior management, Kent recalled. In 2000, Walton was named president of domestic networks at the CNN News Group and in 2003, he was upped to president of CNN Worldwide, where he now oversees all the division’s international and domestic operations.
These were difficult times for CNN, which fell behind Fox News Channel in the ratings in 2002 and has remained No. 2 ever since. “CNN went through a period where it didn’t understand what it was,” Walton admitted.
To overcome those problems, Walton moved to strengthen the management team, hiring new executives to oversee the domestic CNN service and HLN, and worked to refocus the various operations.
CNN launched several new programs, including Anderson Cooper 360. The on-air look was revamped, major changes were made in the way the news was presented, and the TV and digital operations were closely integrated.
Meanwhile, the programming for Headline News, which was recently rebranded as HLN, was transformed to differentiate it from CNN with the launch of Nancy Grace, Showbiz Tonight, Glenn Beck and, more recently, Issues With Jane Velez-Mitchell.
Less obvious to the outside world, Walton worked to change the way the organization thought about itself. While much of the network’s reporting focused on the competition with Fox News, Walton wanted staffers to understand that CNN is a multimedia organization serving news on a variety of platforms all over the world. In this broader context, he argued, CNN was still the world’s leading news organization.
“Internally, we had to have the self-confidence to understand that we were more than one domestic news channel versus another domestic news channel,” Walton said. “In terms of the news business, we are one of one serving news across all these platforms all around the world.”
Those efforts have translated into much larger reach through increased ratings and rapidly growing use of its online and digital products. In 2008, the CNN Digital Network was ranked No. 1 in the online-news space, with an average of 1.4 billion minutes spent on the site each month and an average of 1.7 billion page views. The site also served over 1.5 billion video streams in 2008.
“Our reach is unrivaled when you combine television, mobile, digital and the dot-com business,” Walton said, adding that CNN continues to make major investments in its news-gathering operations. “As more and more news organizations are cut back, we continue to make investments because we feel that at the end of the day, differentiated content is what will separate us from all the others who do news.”