The Cooper Enigma: Anderson’s A Star, But Numbers Stink

By most standards, Anderson Cooper looks like a winner. The CNN anchor, Yale graduate, Vanderbilt heir and brand-new 60 Minutes correspondent hosts two hours of live television a night. His face (that hair!) adorned the June Vanity Fair, which sold 375,000 newsstand copies. On June 20 and 21, Mr. Cooper conducted two “big get” interviews—first Angelina Jolie, then Cher. On June 26, he flew to New Orleans for a series of packed readings from his book, Dispatches from the Edge, for which he received a handsome advance and which topped the New York Times best-seller list until last week, when Ann Coulter finally knocked it off.

But there is one pesky measure of victory that Mr. Cooper doesn’t quite satisfy: He doesn’t actually win.

On average, only some 630,000 viewers a night tune in to Anderson Cooper 360, to watch Anderson Cooper do his professional duties.

It’s not just that Anderson Cooper 360 doesn’t get American Idol ratings. Or that it doesn’t get Grey’s Anatomy ratings or O’Reilly Factor ratings or On the Record with Greta van Susteren ratings.

Many nights, Mr. Cooper doesn’t even do as well as his predecessor Aaron Brown, the ice to his fire, the old-fashioned, bespectacled anchor who was booted in 2005 to make room for Mr. Cooper.

CNN president Jon Klein calls Mr. Cooper “the anti-anchor.” If an anchor is someone people regularly watch host a news program, Mr. Klein may be onto something.

In April, Mr. Cooper’s ratings were down more than 20 percent—and 36 percent in the 25-to-54 demographic—from Mr. Brown’s numbers the previous April.

In May—the month his memoir came out—Mr. Cooper’s total audience climbed from 562,000 to 636,000. It slipped to 632,000 in June. Those numbers were better than Mr. Brown’s numbers from a year ago—when he refused to cover Natalee Holloway and his audience plunged into the 400,000’s.

Still, in June, Mr. Cooper has occasionally been outperformed by his own substitute host, John Roberts, the salt-and-pepper CNN national correspondent who was dumped by CBS News this year. He loses 20 to 40 percent of his lead-in from Larry King Live.

And he is routinely trounced by his head-to-head Fox competitors, Greta van Susteren and a rebroadcast of Bill O’Reilly.

Even Mr. Cooper’s great June triumph, the Jolie postpartum interview, trailed The O’Reilly Factor in total viewers, though it won the night among young viewers. At 1.33 million viewers, the Jolie interview was markedly smaller than a big night on Larry King—when Mr. King landed Elizabeth Taylor earlier this year, 1.8 million tuned in.

Why don’t more people tune in? One theory is that the evening cable news audience is more interested in Fox fare than the emo-cocktail offered up on 360. Another is that 360 itself is an inconsistent show, varying widely in topic and tone.

Another—a surprisingly popular one—is that Mr. Cooper himself, for all his vaunted good looks, is aesthetically ill-suited to television. The silver hair and piercing blue eyes make him all light and no contrast, a human green screen. “He’s wispy,” said the head of one cable news network. “I don’t know how to describe it.”

“It probably has more to do with CNN and the reason people watch TV,” said yet another anonymous cable network executive. “People watch CNN to see if the world’s safe, not really to sit down and watch all night.”

Yet Mr. Cooper is a star. “It’s hard to explain why Anderson’s so big,” said Jeff Fager, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, where Mr. Cooper will begin as a part-time correspondent in the fall. “A big part of it is because he’s very talented. As for the ratings? I don’t know what to say about that.”

Mr. Cooper squats in a giant billboard opposite Fox News Channel headquarters on 47th Street, appears on Oprah, writes a column for Details, headlines his own blog, sustains many others and in May gave the graduation speech at his alma mater. 60 Minutes found room for him, even as it was crowding out Dan Rather. There’s buzz he might inherit the World News Tonight anchor chair some day. There’s buzz he might climb the ranks at CBS, and more buzz on top of that, so much that it seems to have drowned out the little voice of Nielsen.

“I just don’t get it,” said one cable news executive. “I watch the show, and there’s nothing there for me. All of a sudden, I’m looking at the upfront for CBS, and he’s one of the faces of 60 Minutes. One of the three faces of 60 Minutes! How did that happen? It keeps rolling along, this media-sensation thing.”

Rolling and rolling and rolling. The Jolie interview alone helped to bring more than 500 Nexis mentions in two weeks. “He benefits from this P.R. machine that supports him and just propels him out there,” said one broadcast-network executive. “Is there any interview they would turn down for him?” asked another.

Well, yes. “Anderson’s not doing any press right now,” his CNN publicist told NYTV—not even on the subject of the Jolie interview, which doubled his regular audience. “He’s said all he has to say about that,” his publicist said.

Still, the Jolie interview brought up a natural parallel. She gets two hours in prime time to talk about the plight of refugees because she is famous. He gets two hours in prime time to talk to Angelina Jolie for essentially the same reason.

Mr. Cooper blogged a more generous explanation: “I’m sure there were plenty of news programs requesting interviews with Angelina Jolie. The truth is, mine wasn’t one of them. They called us. I was told that they were aware of my interest in Africa and knew that as a broadcast we have devoted a lot of time to reporting stories from the continent.”

“Celebrity in and of itself is good enough sometimes,” said one observer. “So I guess you’d rather hear Angelina on Africa, or Cher on the woeful federal response in Iraq, than, say, Joe Biden. Now, who knows more? But that ain’t what it’s about. In some ways, Anderson’s a part of that. He lives in a world that’s hugely different.”

Mr. Cooper, the child of Gloria Vanderbilt and Wyatt Cooper, is a harder worker than Stavros Niarchos or the Hilton sisters—but Mike Wallace and Morley Safer didn’t model Ralph Lauren when they were kids, either. He came up smoothly through Dalton and Yale into the business, landing a job, at 28, as one of ABC’s youngest correspondents, and then as an overnight anchor on World News Now.

In 2000, Mr. Cooper hopped to the entertainment division, to host ABC’s Survivor-copycat reality show The Mole, for two seasons. Fourteen million people tuned in for the first-season premiere—not terrible, but a steep drop from the audience of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, whose slot The Mole filled. Critics found the concept impossibly dense and Mr. Cooper ill-suited to hosting. Right guy, they said, wrong vehicle.

Also the wrong vehicle was American Morning, the CNN dawn-time talk show that absorbed Mr. Cooper afterward. When that didn’t work out, Mr. Cooper began bouncing around the network, filing reports from Afghanistan and Pakistan and popping up on other shows, including as a guest host on Aaron Brown’s Newsnight.

In 2003, those many opportunities resolved into two: a permanent spot on the prime-time lineup with Anderson Cooper 360, an 11 p.m. news roundup with middling ratings but a loyal fan base; and a dalliance with 60 Minutes II, for which he would eventually do two stories, one that broke ground on the use of steroids in the N.F.L. Mr. Cooper scooted around the world for his show, filing moving reports after natural disasters in South Asia, Indonesia and, triumphantly, New Orleans. But except during breaking news or when he landed a major interview, the ratings dial barely budged.

“There’s something to Anderson the celebrity, the son of celebrity, and his story that I think appeals to a broad cross section of folks. But, you know, it just doesn’t—that just doesn’t seem to translate into increased numbers for his show,” said another cable executive. “I’m not saying I know why it is, but it is.”

CBS is hoping Mr. Cooper—defender of innocents, blaster of Mary Landrieu—will fit in better on 60 Minutes, home of mike-thrusting Mike Wallace. But it seems unlikely.

The old guard on 60 Minutes consisted of reporters who gradually grew into celebrities—Morley Safer making his name in Vietnam, through enterprise reporting on the war. Whatever Mr. Cooper may have done in New Orleans, it didn’t take much investigative work.

Mr. Fager said he feels 60 Minutes is a more natural platform for Mr. Cooper than any other. “It’s really about reporting and interviewing and telling a story,” he said, “and I know he does those three things extremely well.”

Still, there are skeptics.

“There was something really appealing about these guys, because they did it all,” said yet another broadcast network executive. “They went to shitholes all over the world and really earned their reputations. They weren’t built on, you know, on just being on television.”