CNN Chief Admits: Without Trump, Our Ratings Collapse

"So we know that, right now, Donald Trump dominates."

Don Lemon (L) and President of CNN Jeff Zucker attend CNN Heroes Gala 2016 at the American Museum of Natural History on December 11, 2016 in New York City.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Turner

No Trump, no ratings. That's the reality of CNN's situation in the Trump era, CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker begrudgingly admits.

In an interview with Vanity Fair that offers a glimpse "inside the Trump gold rush at CNN," Zucker acknowledged some things that he'd probably rather not be the case: The network is indeed obsessed with Trump — because it has to be.

"People say all the time, 'Oh, I don't want to talk about Trump. I've had too much Trump,'" Zucker told Vanity Fair's Joe Pompeo. "And yet at the end of the day, all they want to do is talk about Trump. We've seen that, anytime you break away from the Trump story and cover other events in this era, the audience goes away. So we know that, right now, Donald Trump dominates."

Pompeo makes a point of crediting Zucker for bringing Trump to television when he was at NBC by green-lighting "The Apprentice" back in 2004. Zucker "arguably schooled Trump in the art of reality television," writes Pompeo. "Halfway through Trump’s first term, his instincts remain just as acute."

Zucker portrays CNN as the place where, supposedly, both Trump's base and the resistance are allowed to duke it out with more parity than on other networks.

"On Fox, you rarely hear from people who don't support Trump," said Zucker. "On MSNBC, you rarely hear from people who do support Trump. We want to be home to both those points of view. It is true some of these folks are not very good with the facts, but that’s O.K. in the sense that it’s our job then to call them out."

And, Pompeo notes, CNN's all-Trump-all-the-time/"cantankerous battle" model appears to be paying off:

Even though CNN still trails Fox News and MSNBC in prime-time audience size, its ratings have never been better. The average number of people watching on a given day has been above 700,000 each year since 2016, compared to around 400,000 in the pre-Trump news cycle. That’s also considerably larger than any other time over the past 25 years, an astonishing feat given the ubiquity of news and the decline of cable. The ratings of course skew higher in the evening hours, when the most people are watching all at once. The average prime-time audience is around a million, compared to fewer than 600,000 when Zucker arrived, in 2013. According to someone with direct knowledge of the numbers, CNN is projected to turn a $1.2 billion profit on $2.5 billion in revenue this year, making 2018 its most profitable year ever.

As CNN profits off Trump, the president continues to smack the network and their "fake news media" allies at every occasion, including this week.

"CNN and others in the Fake News Business keep purposely and inaccurately reporting that I said the 'Media is the Enemy of the People.' Wrong! I said that the 'Fake News (Media) is the Enemy of the People,' a very big difference. When you give out false information - not good!" he tweeted Tuesday. "Check out tweets from last two days. I refer to Fake News Media when mentioning Enemy of the People - but dishonest reporters use only the word “Media.” The people of our Great Country are angry and disillusioned at receiving so much Fake News. They get it, and fully understand!"

Related: Don Lemon Says 'I Don't See Democrats Killing People.' Scalise Helps Him See More Clearly.

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