Apparently, I am the only one not watching more cable news programming these days. Ratings growth in the first three quarters of this year across the three 24-hour news nets has been nothing short of extraordinary. In an era of hyper audience fragmentation and declining ratings, the news nets audience growth story is even more incredible. While admittedly I have no insight into the financials of these operations, ratings growth almost always yields revenue growth. Good news (so to speak) for everyone in the news ecosystem … or maybe not.
News ratings have been monotonously, boorishly consistent for years, excepting the occasional spikes. However, over the past three quarters total day ratings on MSNBC have increased 50-70% vs. 2016, while CNN and Fox News are up between 15-25% with CNN (Q3 2017) posting its most-watched quarter ever. So I say to these networks, “Well done, people!” Or, perhaps, I should say, “Well played.” It’s wishful thinking on my part to believe this surge in viewership is because the nets have re-engaged America’s interest in our country’s political process. Most likely, it is because people are fascinated with the ongoing circus in Washington, D.C. It’s the new Greatest Show on Earth, and who doesn’t love a good circus?
I wonder if what we are experiencing now with cable news coverage is the new normal? We haven’t seen a President who behaves so irascibly and unpredictably since Andrew Jackson. We haven’t seen a President with such a contentious relationship with the press since Richard Nixon. Partisan politics are at a fever pitch. And in the middle of it all we have the cable news nets serving up the play-by-play. All of this angst and political chaos is generating daily soap opera-like story lines that viewers are gobbling up as they do episodes of Scandal. Good for ratings, good for revenues, and therein lies an insidious conflict of interest that is testing the moral authority of the press.
Are the networks responding to America’s appetite for more coverage of the D.C. Follies, or are they helping whet that appetite because it serves their financial interests? Or both? Regardless of the answer, there is a perception here of conflict of interest. Oftentimes now the nets are not just reporting the news but interpreting, curating and re-packaging it, so as to create storylines that appeal to their left-leaning or right-leaning supporters. Depending on which cable news network you were watching last week, you were presented with completely different reports, opinions and viewpoints of the President Trump/General Kelly/Representative Wilson spat. Rather than simply reporting the details of the incident and letting the viewers come to their own conclusion (we’re not capable of that, I suppose), the nets cast one side as hero and the other as goat.
For years our TV news media and anchors have been our most trusted sources for information. They are the ones who kept our business and political leaders honest. They are the ones who exposed the opioid crisis and the bad actors behind it. (Thank you, 60 Minutes.) They have been the guardians of democracy and the First Amendment. They are the ones to whom we turn to parse Fake News. But, it feels like news coverage is now morphing into reality TV, as the circus continues.
The news nets have spent thousands of hours speculating about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and President Trump’s connection to the Russians … and to what end? These stories are kept alive and fueled by leaks from un-named sources and speculation by talking-head “experts.” We are repeatedly fed the promo “Breaking News” even if the news is hours old.
But as Clara Peller so aptly put it, “Where’s the beef?”
What happens when the circus leaves town? What financial pressures will the news networks be under to maintain their current, rarified viewership levels and what nature of reporting and storylines will be necessary to do so?
We need the objectivity of the news media more than ever in this world of fake social media postings and foreign, state-sponsored intervention in our political process. Even the perception that our news media are curating the news to drive viewership for their own financial benefit takes us down a dark path.
Disturbingly, if the goal of the Russian interference into our election process was to create dissent and division within our democracy, it seems like they’re succeeding ... and much of this divisive dialogue has been fueled, in part, by our news media.
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