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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Where Are The Eyeballs?

The decline of daily print newspapers has been pretty steady for the past several years. With many fingers to point looking for blame the two primary factors appear to be the internet and content. And one, internet, has been able to show the problems with the other, content. Not as widely reported has been the continuing decline of high profile television programming--programming that used to be driving forces in television news reporting.

For years cable news and commentary was owned by CNN and Larry King. CNN invented the 24 hour news cycle and cable news. I had the fortune to hear Ted Turner speak sometime in the late '80s at a college alumni fundraiser (Tipper Gore also spoke when she was just a Senator's wife and not the 2nd Lady--that may be for some other time). Turner, in his high pitched southern accent said about CNN, "I do a lot of traveling and my clock gets messed up. One night I'm in some town in a hotel room and around four in the morning I couldn't sleep so I turned on the television. They had my TBS Superstation and it had on wrastling. I don't always mind wrastling but that time I wanted to see what was happening. I wanted news not wrastling. So I invented CNN so I could watch news in my hotel room at any time." Simple solution to a simple problem: create a new network that will have continuous live programing all day and night, every day and night.

As the cable television industry grew so too did the number of cable stations. Soon Turner created Headline News. CNN became a more trusted source than the half hour evening news programs, in large part due to the first Gulf War when Wolf Blitzer gave us live reports with green tracer bullets and explosions streaking the background.

As the internet gained traction in the late 1990's we were able to read news reports from papers across the country and across the sea. News media began providing content on-line, for free, and slowly the free content started sucking up eyeballs and the daily paper slowly began losing subscribers. With the first Bush election in 2000 internet content exploded, as did cable news. NBC joined forces with Microsoft to create MSNBC filled with news talk shows and essentially live, visual radio programming. Rupert Murdoch entered the fray creating the Fox network and starting the Fox News Channel on cable. Lines were quickly drawn, CNN began hiring hosts that would decidedly anti-Bush, MSNBC did as well. Murdoch filled his counterpart with programming that featured pro- and anti- forces on both parties and most issues, early programing sometimes resembled playground fights.

Slowly through the 2000's as internet content and blogs exploded, the trusted content of the network news and daily papers, now labelled Mainstream Media, began to come under scrutiny. The liberal bias of major papers editorial pages became even more apparent, and slowly the bias of the news programmers came more and more to light as alternative reports of the same stories were available on-line, for free. Now instead of a ten second clip of what someone said we could watch the entire statement, instead of reading the stock AP report, or report from the New York Times or Chicago Tribune reporter, we could read more accounts from those who were at the scene. Mainstream news came into question.

The trust for many Americans blew up courtesy of an internet blog. CBS' 60 Minutes for decades was Sunday night staple for viewing. Dan Rather was a primary contributor to in depth stories on issues and people. During the 2004 Presidential Campaign Rather did a story on President George W. Bush with the angle he dodged the war in Vietnam using the Texas National Guard and connections to get favorable treatment. The center piece of evidence was a memo from the Texas National Guard files. Except the memo was a fake.

Within minutes of the memo being posted a blogger dissected the type and showed it to be unavailable type face at the time the memo was written, it could only have been written on a more modern typewriter. The memo scandal blew up on the internet and after several weeks the rest of the Mainstream Media quit protecting Rather and CBS. Eventually Rather resigned from the show and CBS News.

As a tipping point it was pretty clear the 60 Minutes scandal solidified for many Americans that the news they and their parents trusted was now in doubt. Lines were drawn and the reaction by the cable shows was to hire more commentators and hosts who moved more to the edges. CNN and MSNBC became clearly anti-Bush and pushed an anti-Iraq agenda. Fox drifted to the right, which for the Mainstream Media meant right extremist. Daily newspapers lost subscribers in droves.

Almost six years since the CBS Memogate the perceptions and actualities of cable and network news still persist. MSNBC hitched its wagon for many years to Keith Olberman who was unapologetic and unfiltered in his hatred of Bush and all things Republican. Spewing vitriol and venom he became a celebrity for the hard left. Larry King became predictable in interviewing either elected Democrats or Hollywood stars. Fox brought up from the ranks Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly. The battle for eyeballs began in earnest.

For many years now Fox News was behind CNN for viewers and playing back and forth with MSNBC. That changed during the 2008 election cycle (which probably began in 2006?). Fox began to narrow the gap on CNN and O'Reilly's viewers grew and grew. Sometime in 2007/2008 Fox surpassed CNN for eyeballs.

Today it is not even close on viewers. With little to no changing in their on-air talent or programming CNN is getting about 25% of the viewers of Fox News, most of those from people waiting for planes in airports, and MSNBC in the most recent ratings is at less than half the viewers. Larry King? He has had the worst two quarters in his show's history, down almost 10% from last quarter when he had his second worst quarter. Olberman? His show continues to decline, but at a slower rate last quarter, coinciding with his taking a month off. Fox? Ratings and eyeballs grow for all Prime Time programming.

At some point some news editor and publisher and senior network executive will realize that American is a center-right nation. We're also pretty connected and those they target for advertising and eyeballs tend to be pretty intelligent and capable of sifting chaff from wheat, or biased commentary from news reporting. Someone may notice that as the Mainstream Media and CNN and MSNBC have become more anti-conservative, anti-non-liberal, and are less and less obscuring their Obama cheerleading and pushing agendas like Cap and Trade and Obamacare, they are losing eyeballs, which means they are losing advertising dollars, which means they are creating their own demise. A demise which appears from the television ratings and subscription numbers which appears to be increasing exponentially. A demise that increases the more they and their dwindling core of supporters criticize and demonize those who have ideas with which they vehemently disagree.

Until then, those who don't get it will continue to lose eyeballs, and advertisers. And as they lose them will continue to demonize those who are picking up those eyeballs...and those who own those eyeballs. Continue to call me a misogynistic, racist, teabagging, ignorant reptile, while asking me to read your paper or watch your programming, and then ask how that approach has been working for you?

It is okay to show some bias, just don't try to hide it or lie about it--at least not if you expect to win the huge middle ground of American people and their attention and support. Speak your minds, state your opinions, but if people are tuning out or cancelling subscriptions please don't look to the government to bail you out, accept your failure to win support.

DCS 03312010


Bob S said...

If you want to accept what passes for news on Fox, bless you. If you base your votes and contributions on it, I suspect you'll eventually come to regret your decisions. Fox isn't news -- it's demagoguery in newscast format. If you're genuinely interested in information, try the BBC or the New York Times. If you ignore the ranting on the editorial pages, the Wall Street Journal isn't too bad for economic news, though The Economist is probably more accurate.

More important is the fact that a large number of people are getting information from multiple sources these days and drawing their own conclusions. If you look carefully at the numbers, it's not so much an audience shift as it is that a huge number of people have stopped getting their information from TV and newspapers altogether.

Do you REALLY believe what Fox tells you? REALLY?

Dennis C Smith said...

Do you REALLY believe what the New York Times tells you? What the BBC tells you? It is easy to get your news through whatever source you prefer, television, print, internet, and then follow up on the "news" that was reported to you that one with semi-intelligence can determine news from opinion. My trust in what I see and read as "news" on BBC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, is very scant, thankfully for other sources and opinions.

If you feel my beliefs and values have been shaped by Fox News however, you have not been paying much attention!