December 6, 2021

Politico aka "Tiger Beat on the Potomac" (thanks Charlie Pierce!) media critic Jack Schafer goes long on cable news:

How did the cable news networks become our main stage?

Nary a day goes by without somebody saying something stupid somewhere on cable that ignites a national uproar that seizes the news cycle for days. On Wednesday, Tucker Carlson praised the journalism of Infowars fantasist Alex Jones on his Fox News Channel show, and that sparked coverage in the Washington Post, the Daily Beast, HuffPost and elsewhere. Earlier in the week, the someone saying something stupid was Fox Nation journalist Lara Logan, and her venue was Fox News Primetime, where she directly compared Anthony Fauci to Josef Mengele, the Nazi war criminal who conducted ghastly medical experiments on the prisoners at Auschwitz. Drenching coverage poured out of every media orifice and continues as Logan spiked the outrage with a pinned tweet further accusing Fauci of medical wrongdoing. (An Associated Press fact-check, as if we needed one, absolves him.)

…which sort of sounds like someone might be reading my blog Mock Paper Scissors, doesn’t it? The 24-hour news cycle is mostly made up of faux outrage (thanks to Fox News and the rest of our Failed Political Press ™ ) and is echoed everywhere.

But what, really, is the reach of cable news on its own?

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?

Which brings us to a discussion I had over the weekend in The Bat Cave with a secret Scissorhead who works at one of the Big Networks and another friend who used to be well-placed at Nielsen. Essentially, it is their opinion that the world of news is about to have a major upheaval: everything is going to streaming.

Now it is true that cable advertisers can pinpoint their marks, er, customers with a degree of accuracy greater than the broadcasters (which is why Fox News seems to be supported by dick pills and reverse mortgage grifters), but a shift to streaming will make pin-pointing accuracy more like Facebook. The Demographics on cable teevee are also home to the Olds: Fox News owns the 75+ seniors, and MSNBC skews a more youthful (checks notes) 68:

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?

In short, the Fox News Channel viewership is dying off, and MSNBC has a short runway to try to get fresh blood, er, younger viewers.

These Scissorheads noted that the most desirable demographic for advertisers —the callous Yutes of Today who never became part of the cable news ecosystem— also have tuned-out of broadcast by vast majorities and prefer to consume content on their devices. It makes sense: they watch what they want, when they want, wherever they happen to be. Our secret Scissorheads noted with some marvel that the Yutes are watching live sports on their phones.

And thus we discussed how all the major networks are putting the majority of their R&D Ameros into streaming. Paraphrasing one Scissorhead, “The networks don’t know it yet but they are dead, dead, dead.” We batted about how long it will last, but no one argued the premise that linear teevee is dying. If anything remains linear, it will probably be sports, but even that will be streamed live. The news? maybe?

This is a moment where the technology of streaming has surpassed the business models. We might not know yet how advertising is going to capitalize on streaming. Will programming be free with ads and ad-free with paid subscribers? As one of the three of us who worked in Advertising that makes no sense to me: Advertisers want the more-desirable viewers with money, not the freeloaders. I suspect that even subscribing to a service (or even a single App) will include advertising.

With improved capabilities of devices and WiFi/cellular reception, being tethered to the box will be as old-fashioned as waiting for a call on a landline. And with the billions of Ameros in the Build Back Better legislation that will expand the reach of the internet to deepest Possum Hollar, well, within a short generation cord-cutters will be there, too.

Will this put us all even deeper into our news silos? Probably. We on the Left have lamented since at least the ’90s that we do NOT have a liberal equivalent of Fox News, but this paradigm shift could be the great equalizer, as blogs were in the early days of the internet and podcasts are now.

All I’m saying is that this is an opportunity.

Crossposted with permission from Mock Paper Scissors.

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