"In contrast to the vitriolic rants you'll find on some political blogging sites, Palmer gives in-depth analysis and commentary." --Dan Cook, The Free Times

1/09/2009

The Post-Election Cable News Landscape

(Note: This post is a reassessment of the arguments I posed in The Future of Cable News last spring.)

The holidays are over and a new political season is beginning after several weeks of downtime. This new political season offers many unique challenges and opportunities not just for Barack Obama and the Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill. The three major cable news networks also now have to deal with a post-election landscape that is fraught with several pitfalls that did not exist three months ago. Failure to successfully adapt to this changing media environment could shake up the cable news race because the cable news audience has changed.

MSNBC has two unique problems. The first problem concerns its programming. The primetime lineup that brought the network from obscurity to competitiveness with CNN now threatens to leave the network flailing. President Bush will be out of the White House in less than two weeks. Then what? Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow have two of the network's three highest rated programs. These programs are often based on Bush-bashing or exposing transgressions or scandals emanating from the White House. But now that the next president will be Barack Obama, whom both fiercely supported, what will they talk about on their shows?

Perhaps Olbermann and Maddow are hoping that they could serve as liberal watchdogs to keep Obama in check. After all, just because Obama is a liberal Democrat doesn't necessarily mean he will govern like one. And just because Washington will be completely controlled by Democrats doesn't necessarily mean the Democrats won't mess things up or that the Republicans won't create controversies of their own. But Olbermann and Maddow clearly came to prominence because of Bush. After all the Bush-bashing the two of them did, they may find that they actually miss him if their ratings begin to slide. Are their viewers pro-liberal or anti-Bush?

MSNBC's second problem is its positioning. CNN is the network people turn to when news matters. Fox News is the network people turn to for conservative political programming. MSNBC, in addition to being a haven for liberals, is "the place for politics." But is there really an appetite for a network that focuses on politics first and news second? This may have been a good formula before the election because all the political junkies needed their "hit." But can the intensity of this interest in politics be sustained in this post-election climate?

On a related note, being a political network first and a news network second could bring disastrous results in the event that breaking news is the issue of the day. MSNBC's coverage of the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai was widely criticized. CNN, on the other hand, had correspondents broadcasting live at the scene of the rampage and was able to interview survivors, escapees, and eyewitnesses. MSNBC cannot sacrifice news reporting for political reporting if it wants to be taken seriously.

As for CNN, it is certainly not the flashiest network when it comes to political programming. Its primetime programming took a beating last fall, as MSNBC actually beat CNN in the ratings last October. However, its international resources and reliable reporting clearly define this network. If there is a major news story or historical event taking place, CNN shines. In terms of politics, however, the low decibel debates that its pundits engage in might not be as engaging as the shoutfests that typify Fox News or MSNBC. But CNN may be banking on viewers to get tired of the ranting and have a renewed appreciation for civil political discourse. But hasn't CNN been banking on that for years now?

The challenge for CNN is to not let its political reporting become marginalized by its news reporting. (In other words, it has the opposite problem of MSNBC.) There is clearly an appetite for political programming. But if CNN's lead story at 8:00 is about bad weather while its marquee interview at 9:00 is about a missing person case, the network will continue to be seen as the "Crisis News Network" that thrives when the subject is Katrina, 9-11, Mumbai, or Election Night, but is totally forgotten when those stories go away. CNN earned a lot of respect from political viewers as a result of its "Magic Wall" and impressive political roundtables (particularly David Gergen and Gloria Borger). Now it has to find a way to keep them interested. Channeling their inner Weather Channel or Nancy Grace won't do it.

The challenge for Fox News is to avoid becoming what MSNBC was under Bush. Barack Obama's approval rating is about three times higher than President Bush's, and he clearly expanded the map by turning reliably red states purple. Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and other pundits and personalities at the network spent a lot of time attacking Obama for issues that ultimately did not matter to most of the electorate or positions that most of the electorate actually shared. Obama's victory essentially repudiated these pundits' analyses and undercut their proclamations that their views were in sync with "mainstream America."

Fox News benefits from its catchy slogan "We report. You decide." But the voters' decision last November clearly went against what Fox was reporting (e.g., William Ayers, Michelle Obama not being "proud" of her country, etc.). So if Fox News does little more than take potshots at Obama right from the onset of his administration, the top-rated cable news channel may find itself reaching a smaller and smaller audience.

In short, MSNBC can survive as a political news network, but it can't survive if the "news" part of the equation falls by the wayside. It may also need to reassess whether it can survive as a liberal alternative to Fox.

CNN can survive as a straight news network, but it can revitalize itself if it takes a few chances by placing a little more emphasis on politics or at least doing a more effective job of showing how the news of the day impacts the political world.

Fox News can survive as an alternative to the much maligned "mainstream liberal media," but not if it is blinded by its own ideology. This is not to say that conservatism is wrong. But it would be wise to consider broadening its appeal because, as last fall's election indicated, the segment of the electorate its programming caters to is shrinking.

3 comment(s):

DB said...

Sadly (or thankfully), I have stopped watching all three networks completely. I feel that Fox News and MSNBC are too ideological for someone seeking both sides to make my own decision and I hate being force fed opinion, and CNN just has very little to offer me in terms of programming and personalities. It also sucks living overseas as being 14 hours different than the East Coast plays a big deal into my news cycle.

While Fox News (like Talk Radio) did well under Bush with a Republican Congress, I don't expect the same for liberal outlets as it seems liberals generally don't rely on cable "news" and radio for their information opting for the internet and new tech.

Btw, CNN (International) (and BBC) is played virtually exclusively in USG offices and Embassies overseas, especially during big news events. So, if it is news one wants, CNN still is above the rest.

S.W. Anderson said...

Let's take a broader look at MSNBC, starting with "Morning Joe" Scarborough. He's an ex-conservative Republican congressman from Florida with a well-established habit of offending women, feminists especially, with frat boy/jock-type comments to and about them.

During daytime, MSNBC runs straight-news shows. These at times have talk segments much like those found on CNN. Some of the reporting is done by Andrea Mitchell, who's married to Alan Greenspan. If she's liberal/Democrat-friendly, she keeps it well concealed.

David Gregory, "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," is a serious reporter. I don't know his political leanings, if any, because he doesn't let them show. I suspect, though, that he harbors a certain amount of contempt for politicians of all stripes.

Chris Matthews likes and admires a few Democrats personally, and it shows. But he's anything but liberal/Democrat friendly overall. In fact, he has repeatedly waxed snide, sniping and cynical about Democrats generally. His frequent sub, Mike Barnicle fits the same description. Either is usually joined by Pat Buchanan, an unreconstructed Nixonian Republican and self-styled populist conservative. In fact, Buchanan is all over the MSNBC lot.

It's only when you get to the two evening hours held down by Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow that you find a consistent liberal/Democrat-friendly tilt. But even on those shows Democrats don't get a pass if they're found to be corrupt or screw up. Just ask William Jefferson, Rob Blagojevich and John Edwards.

Maddow, who's apparently a lesbian, was highly critical of Barack Obama for naming Pastor Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation.

Even with their tilt, both Olbermann and Maddow base their programs and commentaries on facts. On the few occasions when they omit or mangle facts, they issue a correction or clarification. They haven't been repeatedly caught misstating or shading facts and truth, and selectively presenting news, as the "personalities" on Fox News have.

Obviously, with a Democrat in the White House and Democrats controlling both houses of Congress the game changes somewhat for Olbermann and Maddow. Republicans are more than willing and able to go into obstructionist mode, and can be counted on to do exactly that. So Olbermann and Maddow will still have plenty to talk about. But I won't be surprised to find them taking shots at Democrats at times, as well. That includes taking shots at Obama and his administration, BTW.

Fox News is not and never has been a serious news organization. George H.W. Bush, while golfing at Martha's Vineyard a couple years ago, let slip exactly what Fox News is. In an unguarded moment, he mentioned Roger Ailes and referred to Fox as "our people" with other reporters present. In fact, 24/7-365, every program, every personality, it's an operating extension of the Republican Party and part of the right-wing noise machine, period.

CNN is guilty of plenty of pro-conservative, GOP-helpful slant. This was most pronounced and throughout the Bush years. Whether it arises from corporate policy intended to lure Fox News watchers, stems from a compulsion to maintain access to the corridors of power or reflects the political preferences of its staff and/or management, I don't know.

CNN does do breaking news with some seriousness and good results, especially when you have a big event like 9-11 or hurricane Katrina. But much of it any more is infotainment crapola and inane filler blather.

There's many a day when you get more solid reporting from 55 minutes of PBS' "News Hour" than you will from eight or 12 hours of watching CNN.

As for MSNBC competing with CNN in the straight-news arena, I don't think that's MSNBC's mission. I think the parent company sees "NBC Nightly News" as its straight-news standardbearer. When there's a big event like 9-11, NBC expands time for news coverage greatly and feeds a lot of it to MSNBC as well.

Regarding "shoutfests, if you watch Olbermann and Maddow, you won't find those. Olbermann has made it clear he won't tolerate guests shouting and talking over him or another guest, and he doesn't. The same appears to be the case for Maddow's show.

A final note about Olbermann. His anchoring during the post-911 period was extremely good. He loves humor but is capable of serious reporting and show preparation. What's more, he's one of the best interviewers on cable TV. Watch him closely and critically when he has someone like Obama or Hillary Clinton on. You'll see he's done his homework and can be skillfully probing and incisive. There's much more to him than outspoken rants. He's a broadcast professional in the highest sense, and though he modestly dodges the journalist label, he's capable of functioning as one at a very high level. Same goes for Maddow.

Political Realm said...

I'm with DB. I don't watch any cable news anymore. I stopped last summer and felt that I was no longer caught up with the trivial "scandals" that 24/7 news too often obsesses about. It's quite refreshing. Whenever, I do catch any of them, I like to pick and choose. A little Chuck Todd here, a dash of John King there, etc.

Alan Colmes' departure from H & C has left me devastated though. Simply devastated.

As for your summation, AP, I think you're pretty much right on.

As for media bias in general, it's such an overblown problem given the extraordinary amount of sources out there today.

Copyright 2007-2010 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.