What the End of the "Media Election" Means for Cable News Now

Jeff Zucker and Megyn Kelly - Split - H - 2016
D Dipasupil/FilmMagic

Holy crap, it’s finally over. Now, after CNN, Fox and MSNBC scored huge ratings by covering the Clinton-Trump race like a reality show, the hangover persists: a hollowing-out of television’s political journalism.

One quick look at the soaring ratings for the three cable news networks during this election year tells the story: Television journalism has been the media winner of Campaign 2016. Both CNN and MSNBC boast a doubling of the average audience compared with their weak traffic at same time last year. Fox News Channel — starting from a larger base — can boast the largest audiences of its 20-year history.

Their only recent years to rival the stellar performance of 2016 have been 2012 and 2008. These networks occupy their place on the cable channel grid so that they can be consulted on a four-year presidential cycle. They should change their names from news networks to politics networks.

That 24-hour television should find this election to be such a happy fit comes as no surprise. The campaign was structured as a reality TV show. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are two larger-than-life celebrities: In the public eye for decades, they needed no introduction; with vividly drawn personalities, they both made a neutral response impossible; each made a claim to victory based on the disqualification of the other on character — hers corrupt, devious, deceitful; his bullying, intemperate, buffoonish.

The pacing of the campaign, too, followed the rhythms of reality TV. The early rounds (primaries) were an elimination tournament, featuring thumbnail vignettes of quirky minor characters before settling on the main event. The general election was a series of tentpole set-piece ratings blockbusters (conventions, debates), structured to allow nonstop pre-game predictions (with countdown clocks, of course) and post-game analysis (with opinion polls). The big reveal, of course, was Election Day itself, and Trump's surprise win — itself a twist worthy of a compelling TV show.

As ubiquitous as cable news may have seemed, and as sizable as its audiences have been, those three channels do not have the clout to alone transform the national political system. As much as it tried, cable news did not replace a platform-based contest between party-political coalitions with a personality contest between demographically identifying sets of fans. Instead, the success of cable news can be seen as opportunistic on both sides: TV programmers found a soundbite-dominated format for presenting the race that suited their medium, with CNN, whose boss, Jeff Zucker, formerly programed reality shows at NBC, being especially eager to substitute celebrity for civic seriousness; candidates found a medium that showcased their candidacies as individuals rather than as party representatives. Medium — that's the key term. As dominant as the cable news networks may have appeared, that was a function of their success as a political medium rather than as political journalism.

Consider these factors that illustrate the underlying hollowing-out of TV political journalism, which has been papered over by the success of television as a political medium:

NICHE AUDIENCES DOMINATE The increase in everyday viewership for political coverage on cable news does not reflect a general increase in interest for political coverage. The mass audience for the nightly newscasts of the three broadcast networks, which is on average five times the size of that of the cable channels, has stayed constant this election year. That suggests the increased interest is from political junkies, not from the electorate at large.

R.I.P. ISSUES COVERAGE Presenting this election as a contest of personalities has eviscerated coverage as a contest of policy platforms. A viewer of the broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts will have seen a virtual absence of issues coverage. In the previous seven election years (1988 through 2012), there has been an annual three-broadcast network average of 156 minutes on issues; this year, through mid-October, just 32 minutes.

INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING MIA None of the major scoops of Campaign 2016 were generated by TV journalists. Even NBC, whose Billy Bush had personal knowledge of and internal access to the biggest of them all — Trump bragging about groping women — lost his scoop to The Washington Post. The New York Times obtained the leak about Trump's billion-dollar tax write-off. And the biggest exposé of the primary season, the revelation that the DNC failed to play fair with Bernie Sanders, came courtesy of illegal hackers.

POLLING PROBLEMS Once a major source of headlines, the proud internal polling units of the major network news divisions (in partnership with major newspapers) no longer have the exclusive stature to warrant their considerable cost. The authoritative source on opinion polls now is delivered independently online by the likes of FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics.

THE POOR PUNDITS The formula for political analysis by the TV roundtable collapsed this season. Tradition dictated the group be a mixture of in-house correspondents and outsider partisans, campaign operatives and surrogates — symmetrically, one from the right and one from the left — to deliver each side's talking points. The Trump candidacy broke that symmetry: a Republican spokesperson was as likely to oppose him as support him, and Trump said so many insupportable and contradictory things, his surrogates ended up looking like so many Baghdad Bobs. The parting of the ways between CNN and Donna Brazile over her providing debate questions to Clinton exposed the incoherent thinking behind hiring surrogates. Whose interests do they represent? The outlet that hires them or the political operation from whence they came?

Still, this new political landscape produced new opportunities. Hats off to those who seized them:

DEBATE STARS Bad luck to NBC's Lester Holt, the first moderator, whose shortcomings served more as a guidepost to his successors than being a standout himself. CNN's Anderson Cooper learned to persist with pointed follow-ups until he received a definitive answer. Both Cooper and Fox News' Chris Wallace burnished their reputations.

INTERVIEWER STANDOUTS Given a campaign of personalities, performance in one-on-one sit-downs was at a premium. ABC's unfortunate George Stephanopoulos was denied his chance to shine, having disqualified himself by donating to the Clinton Foundation. CNN's Jake Tapper — Stephanopoulos’ former colleague at ABC — and CBS' John Dickerson both polished their Q&As.

WOMEN'S WORK With the nomination of Clinton, the obvious formula would have been to assign a woman to Clinton and a man to Trump. NBC, fortuitously, avoided the obvious, assembling a female quartet — Katy Tur, Hallie Jackson, Kristen Welker and Kasie Hunt — to Trump. When the question of his misogyny became central, it turned out that it was more resonant to have a group of women covering him rather than her — and NBC had its team perfectly in place. A special mention must go to Fox's Megyn Kelly, whose first question to Trump in his first debate hit the misogyny nail on the head.

IT WAS A MEDIA ELECTION For all the criticism CNN deserves for its civic recklessness in participating in the trivialization of this election, its newest Sunday anchor, Reliable Sources media analyst Brian Stelter, has been the most insightful in reporting on his own network's intersection of politics and media. A veritable reliable source, indeed.

Andrew Tyndall is an independent news analyst and publisher of The Tyndall Report.

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.