The battle for cable-news viewers is coming to March Madness.
CNN intends to run a new promo during the heavily watched NCAA men’s basketball tournament that throws a sharp verbal elbow at Fox News Channel and the legal defamation case filed against it by Dominion Voting Systems. The promos will air starting this weekend on TNT, TBS, TruTV and CBS, all of which carry the games under a joint rights agreement held by the owners of those networks, Paramount Global and Warner Bros. Discovery, which is also the parent of CNN.
Fox News Channel is not mentioned in the promo script, reviewed by Variety, but the references are clear. “What should you expect of a news network?” asks the narrator. “Some bury the truth, while we fight to reveal the facts. The only side we are on is yours.” Viewers see images of CNN correspondents and anchors such as Abby Phillip and Clarissa Ward.
At the end, the signature red CNN symbol stands on screen, atop a slogan: “The most trusted name in news.”
The spot is, without using proper nouns, pointing at a much-scrutinized $1.6 billion suit levied against Fox News and its parent, Fox Corp., over damages Dominion alleges it is owed after Fox News aired false claims about the voting technology company’s actions and influence on the 2020 election. Depositions related to discovery proceedings in the legal imbroglio released in recent weeks suggest that top Fox executives and did not believe allegations made against the legality of President Joe Biden’s victory. Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, Fox Corp.’s executive chair and CEO, and anchors including Tucker Carlson are among those whose remarks have been released and analyzed extensively.
CNN declined to make executives available for comment. Fox News was not able to offer immediate comment.
While the promo’s copy is aggressive, there’s also business in the mix. Warner Bros. Discovery executives have not-so-quietly indicated they think CNN skewed too much to the left under the aegis of Jeff Zucker, its former leader, and have charged Chris Licht, the current CEO, with delivering a news product that audiences from both the right and the left will want to see. Fox News draws significantly bigger audiences than CNN, and by dint of the size of its viewership, more of every crowd CNN would like to attract.
“Some of these other networks look like we look, and even call themselves terms that are consistent” with what CNN does, said David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, at a meeting with CNN employees earlier this week. “They do what they do, but you come on our air and you have a chance to talk to all walks of life in America. That’s our ambition,” Zaslav added. “Get everybody back and you have them when something really happens in this country because of the hard work that you do.”
CNN launches the promo while it is grappling with massive programming changes and ratings shortfalls. Under Licht, the network has revamped both its primetime lineup and its morning show, and it is about to launch a new format in its daytime hours. In February, CNN saw its average viewership among people between 25 and 54 — the audience most coveted by advertisers in news programming — tumble 41% across its total programming day according to data from Nielsen, compared to declines of 35% for Fox News and 6% for MSNBC. Fox News’ viewership total in the category was significantly larger than either of its rivals.
CNN is contending with its own defamation lawsuit. The network was sued in 2016 by a Florida heart surgeon over a report about the infant mortality rate at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach and the case has worked its way through the courts for years.
It is incredibly rare for one TV network to take on another in direct fashion in a promotion or commercial (though opinion anchors like MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly used to hurl insults at each other and their networks and corporate owners regularly in the 2000s, and CNN anchors were not shy about criticizing Fox News on air under Zucker). CNN has in recent years grown more aggressive in touting itself. During Zucker’s tenure, the network ran promos telling viewers it specialized in “Facts First” — in an era when President Donald Trump used to call reports he didn’t like “fake news.”
CNN has spent many hours of its recent programming schedule covering the Dominion lawsuit against Fox News. A trial is expected to get underway in April.
Variety Intelligence Platform released a survey Thursday how Fox News viewers feel about the network in the wake of deposition testimony, as well as the hosts’ private emails and text messages. Among Fox News’ regular viewers, 21% are now more distrusting of the cable net. (Get full results here.)