Recent dismal audience ratings for the output of our friends at CNN may be surprising only to them. Ted Turner’s driving presence is no longer there and the Atlanta-based kingdom has lost its way. It’s devolved into a schmaltzy mess of inane trivia with output presided over by bean counters and not the hard news drivers such an undertaking desperately requires.
That opinion from this small, remote, forested spot in SW Oregon comes from my own experiences in the “non-stop” broadcast news business in another life. In the late 60′s, even the concept of 24-hour radio news was in its infancy. Against the advice of wiser friends, I went from Idaho to Washington, D.C. in one jump and got lucky. Very lucky.
Post-Newsweek corporation – Washington Post, Newsweek Magazine et al – was giving birth to the concept of “non-stop” news on WTOP Radio. Day-to-day, there’s no greater national location for origination of as many news stories than the banks of the Potomac. Fertile ground to test a new news concept. The station was also the prime political news origination point for all CBS owned-and-operated radio stations from coast to coast.
The news operation was presided over by Jim Snyder, a literate Prince of Darkness. All these years later, my body and mind continue to bear scars inflicted at that time. But he was precisely what was needed to make it work. And, under his verbal whip, I learned more about broadcast news – real broadcast news – than from all other influences in my professional life.
The whole concept of radio news available at any hour seemed simple enough. It was right there no matter when the listener wanted information. How could that go wrong?
Well, it almost did. Ironically, the flip side of that “simple concept” was a key reason why. The audience didn’t know “how to listen.” The most frequent complaint heard in those early days was “All you do is read the same stories over and over.” People were used to setting a radio dial to a favorite station. Music mostly. So what was wrong with WTOP?
The answer was all-news, all-the-time was never meant to be listened to “all the time.” People were supposed to tune in for short periods, get the news, then go about their lives. Of course stories were repeated. Rewritten. But repeated. Information would be there when listeners wanted it. Other major market attempts with all-news experienced the same problem. It took years for listeners to realize such stations were to be listened to for short periods rather than the “set-it-and-forget-it” practice for music stations.
Then came Ted Turner’s money and the television version of “all-news, all-the-time.” In the beginning, feedback to CNN was much the same as it was in the early radio days. “You guys keep repeating.” Well, duh? Again, listeners had not grasped the concept of “all news” and were treating CNN like the entertainment channels. And, in far too many ways, they still do.
But now there’s a deeper, more systemic problem. As bean counters and stockholders replaced news professionals in the business during the 80′s and 90′s – and as “personalities” replaced real reporters – CNN and its copiers lost their way. They devolved into less news and more features to fill time. Remember, repetition was the original concept. The original value. News – real news – would be there when you had time to watch. Anytime.
As for Fox and MSNBC – neither started with the “hard news” format. Both went straight to personalities and info-mush. They got better ratings so CNN did what most “creative” minds do in all of broadcasting today. They copied what appeared to be a more successful format. And news – real news – was the first casualty.
Fox and MSNBC originated the despicable format of news people interviewing other news people. Because, when both networks discovered the true, very high cost of covering news for television 24-hours-a-day, those costs were suddenly deemed prohibitive. Based solely on dollars, output became more inane features, surface coverage of people and events that deserved far more research than they got, studios were filled with rotating “experts” and real news slowly sank into the verbal swamp. In another burst of true creativity, CNN followed suit.
From where I sit, news – the quality and amount of news – doesn’t have a thing to do with ratings. Viewer numbers have become issues of production values and political philosophy. CNN is stodgy and often aimless. MSNBC is newer and still trying to find a persona.
Faux News ranks highest in both currently. Production is colorful, lots of screen activity coming from various electronic sources, pretty people being “overheard” in conversation rather than reading the news. Pleasing to the eye and ear. Softer touch. Seemingly “personal.”
Problem is, repeated studies have confirmed several very bad things over at Faux. There are fewer hard news stories per hour – any hour – than the other two. Stories are routinely rewritten to reflect a political point of view. People who watch are often misinformed, less informed, ignorant of real facts, history and content of world affairs. Many more Faux viewers can’t pass national surveys of world affairs than those of the other two networks.
CNN, meantime, has adopted the rotating personality concept and trimmed both staff and hours of broadcast news. Sunday evenings, for example, the last “live” newscast is at 8 pm (PDT) with features running until 6 am. Such newscasts as there are on weekends at CNN are filled with meaningless studio interviews with meaningless people. On July 4, there was no “live” news on CNN after 4 pm (PDT). MSNBC on the weekend is even worse. A few morning interview shows but usually no newscasts after about noon (PDT).
Though CNN makes a slightly stronger pretext of broadcasting news, I’m not surprised at the lower ratings. The news business in broadcasting – the real hard news business – has been replaced by conversation, arguments among political hacks, vacuous personalities talking fluff rather than substance. Ironically, that network boasts one of the best news minds on television today – Fareed Zacharia – and can’t get significant numbers of people to watch him. So he’s “thrown away” on Sunday mornings.
Too many Americans seem to now want news packaged as entertainment. They call it “infotainment” – another bastardization of our language. Network executives are – as they have been since the loss of news pre-eminence by the old CBS news – slaves to stockholders and corporate accountants. Anyone wanting to be today’s Ed Murrow couldn’t get past security.
I’m not surprised by CNN’s low ratings. Only by the management malaise that followed Ted Turner’s exit. I’m disappointed MSNBC won’t summon up the resources – budget and reporters – to get both feet into the television news business.
But the ratings success of Faux News is more than disappointing. It’s output is shameful and a prostitution of what Americans need today – a source of reliable, fact-based, opinion-free information. Fox has created a cancer of misinformation which is sickening the body politic. In a nation where people find criticism of news media routine, Fox has managed to live down to its low reputation among professionals. And much of the public.