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On Nov. 18, 2016 — almost two years ago to the day — I wrote a column about how cable news channels not called Fox News should go full-time partisan anti-Trump to survive. That was two months before Trump’s inauguration, very early days, but there was already more than enough evidence that cable TV news — not print journalism, which is an important distinction — needed to change its game or get crushed. Although I’d argue the need for a partisan news channel was evident well before the 2016 election and the Trump nightmare, that’s a pretty irrefutable tipping point.
But nobody in the cable TV news business changed. And since then, Fox News has consistently — and with great glee and malice — utterly destroyed its competition in MSNBC and CNN. It’s not even close. This has been a relentless, epic beatdown for two years, and though CNN can find an election-results gem of a rating here or there, its regular audience — not the one tuning in to see how big of a splash that “blue wave” made after the midterm election — has lost, and lost badly.
MSNBC routinely beats CNN (in primetime and total day), but Fox News routinely beats both of them, combined, and this hasn’t been a close race for so long you might as well say forever. October was a particularly bleak month as Fox News beat them both by an order of magnitude and has been the No. 1 cable news channel in total viewers, according to Adweek, for the 202nd consecutive month.
You see the problem.
It’s not a race. And clearly neither MSNBC or CNN heeded my advice. And I certainly never expected CNN to do that, since it can’t let go of this antiquated notion that TV news needs to be, to borrow a competitor’s outright lie, “fair and balanced.” That game is over and CNN lagging behind is just further proof.
The erosion of resources into the network news was the first thing that changed the game ages ago and then, after cable news picked up the mantle and charged into international coverage (which put CNN on the map), there’s been a prolonged and marked reduction of funding across the TV news landscape, resulting in a curtailing of investigative reporting, international news and overall “issue thoroughness,” which brought about the dumbing down of content.
In its place and needing to fill 24 hours, the driver for cable news has mostly been national news of all sorts, which has always sought out a “hot” story and then bludgeoned it relentlessly over and over again, keeping the news cycle alive by any means necessary. When natural disasters, murders and kids falling down wells couldn’t keep the country fascinated enough to sustain ratings, the template for how to survive as a 24-hour news channel was sitting right there with Fox News: tap into the rage.
Say what you want about Fox News, but that was a hell of a winning strategy, as 202 consecutive months at No. 1 will attest. CNN resisted, again, because it wanted to be a full-service “news” channel, not what Fox News has become, which is the de facto ministry of propaganda for the Republican Party and the religious right.
And despite the ceaseless ratings failure and loss of reputation CNN has endured through the years, it hasn’t “gone Fox” because every once in a while it has a ratings victory out there in the desert of no one watching, and it can’t seem to figure out that a bunch of people who gave up on it years ago will return during elections that matter because, well, the alternatives (outside of MSNBC) are pretty bleak. It doesn’t mean, as CNN continues to read it, that the news channel is doing something right and has brought back viewers. It’s temporary. The ass-kicking will resume in earnest, the ratings will dive.
MSNBC, on the other hand, has been willing to stick more than just a big toe in the partisan waters. It now has a whole foot and part of a leg in there precisely because Keith Olbermann back in the day and Rachel Maddow in the present (and to a slightly lesser extent, the other personalities it has) have attracted ratings the more anti-Trump and Republicans-are-evil it has become.
Two years ago I was preaching the full cannonball, not the partly in, partly out approach that MSNBC is employing with predictably marginal success. If you want to beat Fox News, you have to copy it. You have to tap into the rage.
Two years of missed opportunities have passed both MSNBC and CNN, and anyone else, by the way, who could have funded the fully partisan swan dive. Never has the timing been more right for a move from the left — but none came. The result has been predictable: second and third place finishes, by a wide and often embarrassing margin.
To be clear, that’s not the kind of cable news I’d personally want to watch. I’d rather get my news from the BBC or someone outside of this crazy country, just for the perspective that is so often lacking. More to the point, I’d rather get my political news from print, specifically The New York Times. Cable news hasn’t been relevant to me — as someone who used to be a media critic — for ages; for all the reasons mentioned above. And yes, those dumbing-down complaints are painting with a broad brush — but any channel can produce the occasional smart, thoroughly reported story, with the appropriate amount of nuance. Those stories are simply not the norm.
But that’s not the real point about TV news. People who are fervently, angrily partisan, like Fox News viewers, do not want perspective. They want a mirror for their anger, an unchallenged reflection of their beliefs, and in return often get a magnification of their fears precisely because they don’t have any interest in being enlightened about two sides of anything. Ignorance is a fantastic driver of ratings. It can be harnessed easily and whipped up into a frenzy, which in turn breeds loyalty.
That a cable TV news channel hasn’t realized the left wants this just as much as the right is mind-boggling (and has been for longer than the two years I’m referencing here). I suspect it’s due to a couple of strong factors (the antiquated notion of objectivity being a huge one, as mentioned with CNN).
Another is this misguided notion that the left is somehow across-the-board smarter than the right and doesn’t want partisan news, that it’s somehow intellectually beneath them. The perception seems to be that Fox News viewers are idiots and they are all buying, without fact-checking, what they are being told and sold. Part of that is certainly true for some of the Fox News audience just as it would be true for part of the audience on the left if a partisan liberal news channel was feeding it unchecked pro-administration pieces supporting a Democratic president (who could, in their eyes, do no wrong because she or he was the candidate that mirrored their beliefs and a bunch of horrible people from the opposition was hell-bent on getting into power and changing all of that).
Television news doesn’t draw rational thinkers. It’s not like two educated people sitting across the same table, one reading The New York Times and one reading The Wall Street Journal, both agreeing to disagree on the finer points of foreign policy, trade or social issues. By and large, television news caters to people who are guided by sound bites and talking points. Yes there’s some overlap with people who have read more extensively and critically on the issues that matter to them, but television news is truly the domain of the “tl;dr” crowd. If you haven’t figured that out by now, I can’t help you.
I would argue that, as a business model, an extremely progressive and anti-Trump news channel would absolutely destroy CNN and MSNBC as they are currently constructed. People on the left are angry — and justifiably so. They want to see Trump and the Republicans go down. They want news personalities who will deliver a smart, or certainly smart enough, beatdown of the president and Republicans at all levels. They want revenge. They want a place that mirrors their sense of being aggrieved at the loss of American standards; of blatant gaslighting; of relentless sociopathic lies from the president of their country; of the implicit endorsement of racism, xenophobia, sexism, white privilege, the abuse of male power dynamics, mistreatment of people of color and the LGBQT+ community; and the utter lack of empathy they see perpetuated by the country’s leaders and its policies. Beyond that, they want some health care, too, damn it.
Like I said in the original column from two years ago, if someone doesn’t see that this is an untapped market of potentially zealous TV viewers, then they aren’t paying attention. And remember when I said this iteration wasn’t exactly a thing I’d want to watch? I mean for long stretches. But on the days when being fed up with this country and who we are (or who half, or less than half, of us are) takes its biggest toll, hell, yes, I’d watch. It would be like a visual salve to have a well-done progressive news channel gleefully getting me amped up about that one great day in the future when we can see Trump perp-walked off to jail or some other sublime dream. Sometimes you need to feel heard, empowered to believe that a better day will come, that you’re not alone in believing this is not normal, that we are living in some insane nightmare. Like it or not, it’s what the Fox News viewers are doing, just with their own tilt.
MSNBC could make the leap and capitalize on those available, untapped ratings. What makes Fox News so successful beyond the rage that fuels its viewers is that it has created, for those viewers, a stable of personalities they want to watch. The left needs its star talking heads, too, beyond Maddow or Olbermann, or whichever anchor is your personal favorite. At this point, no more than three or four have truly connected to cult status and beyond. If MSNBC kept at it or groomed better and differently (you know, finding the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the anchor world instead of the Nancy Pelosi), a deeper bench might rise up and intrigue a different and younger audience.
What’s clear right now is that CNN avoiding this route entirely isn’t working. For the channel to think that a fractured country can even believe in the concept of television news impartiality is a relic of a past time. Does it really believe Republican viewers would somehow tune in one night and think, “I like what they’re doing over here, pointing out as misguided or wrong all the things I like about my party and convincing me their reporting is fair and reflective of my values”?
And if MSNBC doesn’t opt all the way in, where are we? Stuck with two “news” channels that are getting their asses handed to them every night by a divided country that has voted with their remote. It certainly doesn’t help that MSNBC and CNN are essentially targeting the same audience and making an omnishambles of it year after year, without evolving. Or that neither of them (or anyone else) has figured out how to capture a younger audience. Where’s the next big idea, the next evolution in the market, a visionary thinker to craft a new news channel? If 202 consecutive weeks of losing the total audience (and losing nearly all of the other weeks as well in the 25-54 demo) isn’t proof enough that your business model hasn’t changed sufficiently with the times, I’m not sure there’s enough pleading in the world to make the change.
But really, make the change.
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