Politics

Washington Monthly | CNN’s Shout Fest Television Isn’t Working

Zucker’s programming instincts aren’t working. Time for a change.

Conservative media is crowing over new numbers showing anemic numbers for CNN viewership, taking it as a sign that they retain a silent majority and that anti-Trump sentiment doesn’t go as far as some Democrats might hope. CNN has long been Donald Trump’s foil and bete noire, and of all the journalism companies in the world conservatives target CNN for their greatest ire. All cable news viewership is down from last year, but CNN’s drop has been steepest:

Fox News averaged 1.299 viewers in the total day category. When compared to the same month, Fox News was down 4 percent from last year. MSNBC finished second in total day, with 1.040 million viewers, with its audience also decreasing by 4 percent. CNN was third, with an average of 705,000 viewers in the category, and experienced a drop of 15 percent compared to August 2017.

To be sure, CNN’s ratings are terrible, but that says much more about the style of television CNN chief Jeff Zucker loves to produce, than it does about the public’s views of Trump and modern conservatism.

First, MSNBC’s lineup continues to perform very strongly, trailing just behind Fox News. MSNBC’s crown jewel Rachel Maddow frequently tops all hosts during the coveted primetime hour. Of course, MSNBC’s coverage tends to skew well to the left of CNN’s.

Second, anyone to the left of a Fox News viewer has many choices of cable news television to pick from. CNN is hardly progressive news media, but if conservatives want to describe it as such then CNN and MSBNC combined would have more viewers than Fox. If you were to add in other news services from the BBC to PBS, the numbers would skew considerably higher.

Most importantly, of course, all of cable news is predominantly viewed by older Americans. Younger people tend to watch far less cable news, and in America today the younger the person, they likely they are to have progressive political leanings. As it stands, the combined numbers for CNN and MSNBC among 25-54 year olds dwarf Fox News, even as cable news viewership declines as a whole.

So what is happening with CNN? Two things seem to stand out.

First, as partisanship increases in the electorate, even casual viewers who only watch during big developments tend to turn more toward programming that reliably reflects their own worldviews. It stands to reason that cable news that caters directly to a specific audience would benefit from the trend toward hyperpartisanship. And, of course, the political obsessives who make up cable news’ core audience are most frequently hyperpartisans.

And while there is no comparison between MSNBC and Fox News in terms of truth and accuracy–even if MSNBC does slant left, it does so honestly with intelligent and fact-checked reporting, while Fox News is a garbage fire of dishonesty and propaganda–MSNBC has become famous for allowing the gripping saga of the Mueller investigation to blot out the sun of its overall coverage.

But there’s likely something else going on, too. Not all partisans want to watch partisan programming, and there is an open market for what we might call “straight” reporting. But CNN isn’t that. CNN head Jeff Zucker is famous for encouraging combativeness from his guests in the belief that it creates compelling programming. CNN frequently brings on outrageous figures from the Trump media complex to engage in shouting matches with reporters, liberal figures and Never Trump conservatives.

It is not uncommon to see CNN panels in featuring four to six pundits all trying to shout over one another. These exercises are unpleasant to watch, even more unpleasant to listen to, and shed only heat but no light. A viewer looking for straight news typically won’t get it from CNN, and a viewer seeking emotionally fulfilling and engaging content can go elsewhere.

If CNN wants to brand itself as non-partisan cable news, then it might want to change its strategy. Not by becoming more conservative or more Trump-friendly, but by getting rid of the lurid shout-fests and doing more to actually serve and inform the public.


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