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April 22, 2007

Don't Hate The Game, Hate ... The Way The Game Is Played (?)

by Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math

Contra Kevin Drum, cable news' tendency to flit from this week's outrage to next week's local-story-taken-national isn't a necessarily a function of the presence of 24-hour networks. Certainly the relatively low cost of covering "conterversies" and the multi-day-draw of stories like the West Virginia mining accidents has appeal to news directors. But CNN could just as easily re-run the same hour's worth of news from 5am to Noon Eastern, the same way ESPN repeats Sportscenter, with perhaps five to ten minutes set aside should events change, thus limiting the appeal of "controversies" and reducing the opportunities for scalphunters to run their mouths in front of a camera. They could spend more time letting the cameras roll during newsmakers' press conferences rather than let second and third-rate pundits gossip about politics like it's a pschodramatic race for the eigth grade class president. Evening programming could focus on more longer form investigative journalism ... not necessarily an hour on the same topic, but more in the spirit of 60 Minutes, or perhaps The Daily Show without the funny [Think about it! It'd make for a good news program.]. You could even have shows dedicated to different topics: Health, Politics, the Military, etc.

Instead, the cable news networks all seem to treat their job as providing the same content as CNN Headline News, only with more gossip (Crossfire, Hardball, etc.) and more celebrity journalist interviews with news makers (e.g. Larry King Live) . But there's nothing inherent to the 24-hour news station format that means things have to be this way.

April 22, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Umm, are you watching the Ocho? I think there has been a fair bit of criticism of ESPN (One) for needlessly focusing on idiot sports-related controversies rather than sports.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Apr 22, 2007 5:32:50 PM

The networks do it this way because it's relatively cheap and highly profitable. Why should they change?

Posted by: beckya57 | Apr 22, 2007 5:56:26 PM

It's not news- it infotainment. Until you get this- then becky's statement won't have much penetration into the progressive understanding of modern media. Outside of practicing law, I occasionally write articles about the entertainment industry. This very subject- what is the nature of the television came up in a recent interview. The person who is fairly big in the industr said- the purpose of television, and the thing that everyone who criticizes don't seem to get- "it's to sell soap." Whether a program is informative, whether it aids democracy and whether you think it helps us become better is irrelevant. If they could fill the space with a black screen inbetween the commercials, and still have a high rating- they would do it.

Posted by: akaison | Apr 22, 2007 6:06:03 PM

Actually, I don't know that you can chalk it all up to the profit motive, if only because there's not all that much money in it. Fox News makes something like $300M in profit a year. I believe that puts it far behind ESPN, HBO, Comedy Central, E!, etc. I don't think MSNBC is doing much better than breaking even.

I think the cable news channels cover things they way they do because that is the way they think they ought to be covered. The point of these channels is sometimes more ideological than financial. Rupert Murdoch runs the news stations they way they do not because it makes them a lot of money but because it gives him an opportunity to profoundly effect the nature and scope of the political dialogue. (The same reason the Weekly Standard hasn't been shut down even though it supposedly loses a million dollars a year.)

Posted by: Jason | Apr 23, 2007 2:31:50 AM

I think the only thing that undercuts akaison's points - which I think are dead-on - is that news people tend to say that this is the best way to maximize ratings and profits without ever having tried the alternatives Nick mentions. We don't really know if long-form, deeper examination of news stories sells because no one really tries it these days, and we assume that what people want is a lot of flash and minimal content. These are seriously, sewriously uncreative, driven, fearful people. We get what we get from them because it's all they know how to do.

Posted by: weboy | Apr 23, 2007 7:33:20 AM

SCTM: I hadn't heard those complaints about ESPN. I sort of think ESPN made Pac-Man Jones' situation worse than it might have been, and obviously Imus got covered. But I can't think of others.

In general I think weboy has the right idea ... it's really that no one has ever tried other formats because they for some reason think that this is the best way to guarantee the best ratings they can hope for. Now, maybe they have good reasons to think that, but as an outsider it seems very odd.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Apr 23, 2007 10:38:23 AM

But now CNN Headline News isn't just headline news anymore. They're copying Fox, MSNBC and CNN by offering political opinion talking heads like Beck and Nancy Grace. Which irks that crap out of me because I live on the west coast and their Headline news ends at 3pm, so I never get to see it unless I wake up early (and CNNH isn't worth getting up early for really).

Posted by: Fred | Apr 23, 2007 1:12:50 PM

"Evening programming could focus on more longer form investigative journalism ... not necessarily an hour on the same topic, but more in the spirit of 60 Minutes, or perhaps The Daily Show without the funny [Think about it! It'd make for a good news program.]."

Didn't you just describe Countdown? Not counting its last ten minutes which are always devoted to American Idol or Anna Nicole or some such.

Posted by: Eric | Apr 23, 2007 4:41:45 PM

It's in their institutional blood. Know what the first time CNN beat the networks was? The Gulf War? Nope. Baby Jessica.

The networks slotted it in as another story in the rotation, CNN went twenty-four-hour flood-the-zone on that damn well. A lot of people made their bones that day, and haven't forgotten it since.

Posted by: Senescent | Apr 23, 2007 5:38:41 PM

The answer to why all news channels cover the same thing is simple economics:
From Yochai Benkler's "Wealth of Networks:"

"Suppose that the distribution of preferences in the audience is as follows: 1,000,000 want to watch sitcoms; 750,000 want sports; 500,000 want local news; 250,000 want action movies; 9,990 are interested in foreign films; and 9,980 want programs on gardening.

[Assuming] that each programmer wants to maximize the number of viewers of its channel and that the viewers are equally likely to watch one channel as another if both offer the same type of programming. . . one would need a system with more than 250 channels in order to start seeing something other than sitcoms, sports, local news, and action movies."

I'm no economics expert, but this is particularly persuasive to me. If you want to read it yourself the book (including chapter 6 from which I took this excerpt) is available online at http://www.congo-education.net/wealth-of-networks/

Posted by: dave | Apr 24, 2007 11:14:22 AM

Didn't you just describe Countdown?

Quite possibly. I don't watch enough of it. Does Olbermann not take BS from both sides? Does he limit coverage to five or six segments over an hour, rather than 17 (!!) over a half hour for network news?

Dave: you're assuming that the a-priori preference of the bulk news-channel watchers is to watch what's on there now. I'm saying that there's no evidence that's the case, because there hasn' been enough experimentation with other formats.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Apr 24, 2007 1:44:43 PM

Nick,

The premise of the chapter I cited is not that people prefer to watch what is actually on TV. Its the opposite. Because, the number of eyeballs watching a channel determines its content, the bulk of channels (up to a certain point - see my above comment) will necessarily be devoted to whatever content the majority of viewers" are "willing to watch" Even if many viewers would prefer substantive news, they wont get it because nearly all viewers are "willing to watch" tabloid news rather than turn off the television.

Posted by: dave | Apr 24, 2007 1:53:51 PM

Essentially, what I'm talking about is the effect of competition among the networks as driven by advertising dollars. The effect of which is to reward TV progrmaming which draws the most viewers without regard for the actual interest those viewers have for the program (above and beyond the amount of interest necessary to get them to tune in).
I apologize if I'm not articulating this well, as this is really not my field and I happened to have just read Benkler's book.

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