NEW YORK – CNN chief Jim Walton said Friday he is quitting, saying the company needs new leadership at a time its flagship U.S. network is suffering through some of its poorest ratings ever.
Walton built the company into a profitable international news organization in his 10 years as president of CNN Worldwide, and said it is on track for record profits this year. But the U.S. network is the most visible part of the business and is now entrenched in third place behind rivals Fox News Channel and MSNBC in prime time.
He announced the decision in an email to staff members on Friday. He said he’ll continue working until the end of the year during the company’s search for a successor.
Walton said he’s been talking to his boss, Turner Broadcasting Chairman Phil Kent, about leaving since the first few months of the year. CNN is owned by Time Warner.
CNN’s U.S. network had its worst-ever ratings for a second quarter, down 40 percent for some of its prime-time shows. The decline was particularly notable in May, when CNN faced tough competition from broadcast networks during a slow news period and its ratings were compared to a year earlier, in the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden killing.
It hasn’t improved appreciably since then, with veteran newsman Wolf Blitzer often losing in the ratings to broadcast novice Al Sharpton on MSNBC. Piers Morgan’s show has been a bright spot this month.
CNN’s ratings traditionally fluctuate based on the intensity of the news. Fox and MSNBC have insulated themselves from that problem somewhat through its partisan prime-time hosts. Walton has resisted this approach, believing CNN’s strength lies in being a nonpartisan news source and the company’s reputation would be damaged worldwide if the U.S. network changed.
Walton said he doesn’t expect that to change after he leaves.
Walton, 54, began working at CNN in 1981 shortly after it started.
“I think this company needs some new thinking,” Walton said. “I’ve been doing this job I’m in now for 10 years and I’m ready for a change.”