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TV TATTLE

It's time to get rid of cable news: CNN, Fox News and MSNBC reach a tiny fraction of the country, so why does the rest of the media care so much about the stupid things they say?

  • "The average audience commanded by Maddow and Cooper and Hannity and all the others slithering down your cable cord is so tiny you can almost get away with calling cable news a niche media," says Jack Shafer. "According to October numbers from TV Newser, the three major cable networks attract an average audience of only 4.2 million viewers during primetime, which is when viewing peaks. In a nation of 330 million, that’s just a little over 1 percent of the population. Meanwhile, the three nightly news broadcasts together can reliably pull in 21.5 million viewers a night. The cable numbers pale even more when you analyze individual networks ratings. Cuomo’s erstwhile channel, CNN, drew, according to TV Newser, an average of about 700,000 viewers during primetime in one October week, which is about equal in size to the population of El Paso. Or compare the cable news audience to that of country music (31 million listeners daily) or Netflix (74 million subscribers) to gain another perspective. If country music vanished in a rapture, you’d have to deal with some pretty ornery people. But if cable news disappeared tomorrow, who would notice? Well, I would notice, I’m slightly ashamed to admit, as I frequently write about the medium. And my colleagues in the press would notice, too. A whole cottage industry of media commentators and activist groups like Media Matters for America that monitor and respond in real time to cable outrages has taken root. If Tucker Carlson expresses the slightest nativist sentiment, you can count on a rapid response to your inbox. Modern newsrooms keep the cable fire burning in the background all day. At Politico, almost 30 TV monitors hang from the ceiling and are screwed to the walls, and they’re tuned 24/7 to cable news and C-SPAN. And that’s not counting the TV monitors in the top editors’ offices, the commons areas, conference rooms, the office canteen, and the lobby. At some point, I expect to see screens in the bathrooms, too. TV monitors abound in newsrooms not so much because they’re essential to reporting the news but because journalists have bought into the idea that because the press secretary held a presser or the president attended a rally, or somebody somewhere said something stupid we’ve got to be on it. This is a slightly unfair exaggeration. We journalists need access to breaking news to do our jobs, but what qualifies at breaking news for cable is an extremely low bar. (Another reason big newsrooms love cable: Most of their reporters lust a side-gig sharing their views on camera and love to study the form.)" Shafer adds: "Cable news exists and persists because as small as its audience is, it’s a highly profitable business. Pew Research estimates the three cable networks earn a combined $4 billion a year. But the median age of the cable news audience is in the 60s, as Jeremy Barr of the Washington Post noted, with the median age of MSNBC viewers clocking in at 68. For reasons that are personal, nobody has more reverence for the aged than I, but can we agree that cable news has devolved over time from a useful headline service (Ted Turner’s original vision at CNN) to a day-to-night eldercare operation? It’s one thing to tolerate cable news. It does, after all, keep people employed. But do we really want to continue to indulge an aged minority’s irrelevant obsession with who said what on cable news? Can’t somebody turn the damn thing off?"

    TOPICS: CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, Cable News




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