Why all the attention when cable news hardly matters to most Americans? The average audience commanded by Maddow, Cooper, and Hannity and everyone else that creeps up your cable is so small that you can almost get away with calling the cable news a niche media. According to October figures of TV news, the three main cable networks attract an average audience of only 4.2 million viewers during prime time, that is to say during peak listening times. In a country of 330 million people, this represents just over 1% of the population. Meanwhile, the three nightly news broadcasts put together can reliably attract 21.5 million viewers per night. The cable numbers turn pale even more when you analyze the ratings of individual networks. Cuomo’s old channel, CNN, drew, according to TV journalist, an average of about 700,000 prime-time viewers during a week in October, which is roughly equal to the population of El Paso. Or compare the news audience on cable to that of country music (31 million listeners per day) or Netflix (74 million subscribers) to get another perspective. If country music were to fade into rapture, you’d be dealing with some pretty nutty people. But if the wired news disappeared tomorrow, who would notice?
Well I would notice, I’m a little ashamed to admit it, as I write in the medium frequently. And my colleagues in the press would notice it too. A whole cottage industry of media commentators and activist groups like Media Matters for America who monitor and respond to cable outrage in real time has taken hold. If Tucker Carlson expresses the slightest bit of nativistic sentiment, you can count on a prompt response delivered to your inbox. Modern newsrooms keep the cable fire burning in the background all day. At Politico, nearly 30 TV screens are suspended from the ceiling and screwed to the walls, and they’re tuned 24/7 to cable news and C-SPAN. And that’s without counting the television screens in the offices of the best publishers, common areas, conference rooms, the office canteen and the lobby. At some point, I would also expect to see screens in bathrooms.
TV screens abound in newsrooms, not because they are essential for reporting current affairs, but because journalists have bought into the idea that because the press secretary was holding a presser or the president attended a rally, or someone somewhere said something stupid, we have to be over it. This is a bit of an unfair exaggeration. We journalists need access to breaking news to do our jobs, but what qualifies as breaking news for cable is an extremely low bar. (Another reason big newsrooms love cable: Most of their reporters want to share their point of view in front of the camera and love to study the form.)
This does not mean that Fox or the other networks have no influence. Fox has been particularly effective at the margins in giving people seemingly consistent talking points, like the anti-vaccine propaganda he presents. (See that roll of Fox anti-vax messages aired on CNN and this article from Media Matters.) But the idea that Fox deserves our full attention because she has become the tail wagging America’s political dog is laughable. Fox has tried for decades to elect a president of his choice and has repeatedly failed to place his first choice at the top of the list. (And that goes for Trump in 2016, too.) The best Fox could have done is support whoever names Republicans.
Obviously, some devoted cable news viewers would notice if their channels dropped. Its ability to “be there” to report disaster sites, war zones, polling stations, political protests and takeoffs from Cape Kennedy is unmatched. Where is it? Broadcast networks do a decent job of being hit by rain during hurricanes, and they rarely resort to the filibustering cable hosts engage in during lulls in the news. Likewise, Republican talking points would have to find a new channel if Fox were to disappear, and gullible Democrats would suffer if Joy Reid, Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes weren’t there to dispense their political nostrums.
Information by cable exists and persists because, as small as its audience, it is a very profitable activity. Pew Research estimates that the three cable networks together make $ 4 billion a year. But the median age of cable viewers is in the ’60s, as Jeremy Barr of the Washington post noted, with the median age of MSNBC viewers at 68. For personal reasons no one has more respect for the elderly than I do, but can we agree that cable news has passed over time from a useful headline service (Ted Turner’s original vision on CNN) to an elderly care operation day or night? It is one thing to tolerate cable news. After all, it keeps people employed. But do we really want to continue indulging in the irrelevant obsession of an elderly minority with who said what on cable? Can’t somebody turn that damn thing off?
Don’t bother me anymore about what Tucker Carlson said last night. Banish from ear any future mention of Lara Logan. And whatever the outcome of Chris Cuomo’s suspension, promise me you’ll never speak his name to me again. I don’t swear to stop the cable or never write about it again. My job description does not allow it. But I’m putting on a special set of blinders starting today to protect myself from the cable’s deep stupidity.
When Michael Kinsley stays in hotels, he turns on the TV on the various networks until he sees someone he knows, then he turns off his TV. Send TV programming tips to [email protected]. My live email alerts for the BBC. My Twitter fueling tunes at C-SPAN. My RSS feed only looks at the test pattern.