24-Hour Cable News? Stop Kidding Yourself

By Mark Joyella 

On Saturday night, journalists who were not gathered in Washington to hear the President of the United States do standup comedy were taking to Twitter to bemoan the cable news networks’ coverage of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. There was, they pointed out, actual news happening–and it wasn’t at the black tie laugh-fest in Washington.

Just 40 miles away in Baltimore, protests over the death of Freddie Gray turned violent. Dozens were arrested, police officers and journalists were injured, and parts of the city were shut down. But cable news didn’t want to be bothered:

For cable’s 24-hour news networks, it was a case of truly bad timing. On a Monday night, they’d be all over Baltimore–especially CNN, which had extensive coverage of the death of Freddie Gray last week. But on a Saturday–especially a special Saturday with a big media party? “A chill went through me,” Jonathan Capehart said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Monday, describing how he followed news from Baltimore via Twitter Saturday, including the news that fans at Camden Yards had been told they would not be allowed to leave the ballpark after the Orioles game–for their own safety.

“I would say that’s a big story,” said Mika Brzezinski. Co-host Joe Scarborough called the unrest in Baltimore “race riots,” and criticized cable news–including MSNBC–for skipping the story. “And every news organization decided to stay on what is affectionately called the ‘Nerdprom,’” Scarborough said.

It was a telling decision for the networks. In America, fans at a baseball game of all events, were told to shelter in place because the city outside was too dangerous. Isn’t that exactly the kind of story that would feed directly–and immediately–into the DNA of a true 24-hour cable news network?

Yes. But that’s not what we have.

“Something big happening in an American city, and yet I flipped through and couldn’t find it anywhere,” said Capehart.

The reason why is simple. MSNBC, CNN and Fox News are all-news networks in the same way that CNBC is 24/7 business, the Weather Channel is nonstop weather, and the History Channel is all history, all the time. They are, and they aren’t. Think of them more as news-themed cable channels.

Sure, CNN will drop everything to cover a story–even a far-flung international story–if it appeals to viewers. The network’s “all in” coverage of the missing Malaysian Airlines jet drew ridicule–but also ratings. And when the ratings drop, CNN will move on. (The plane, as you know, is still missing)

BourdConsider CNN on Sunday. There was no shortage of news, including the rising death toll in Nepal after a devastating earthquake. But CNN’s “breaking news” banner on the CNN.com website was revealing: “BREAKING NEWS: ‘Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown’ explores South Korea. Watch on CNNgo.”

So now the network that has re-interpreted the “live” bug to mean not “what you are watching is happening right this instant” but rather, this show is airing live–even if this particular part of the show is pre-taped–has now decided to share the “breaking news” banner with the folks in promotions.

Perhaps that’s why the @cnnbrk Twitter account was used on Saturday night not to share breaking news from Baltimore or the world, but the latest jokes from the WHCD–complete with a link to the network’s Nerdprom live coverage.

Why would CNN send urgent jokes to @cnnbrk’s 26 million followers? Well, it might be worth noting that a year ago, coverage of the WHCD was a pretty big ratings draw for the network–more than a million total viewers. It’s not news, but it is a popular show, like CNN’s non-newsy coverage of New Year’s Eve with Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin. And CNN, like all the news networks, loves and promotes its popular shows.

Fox News has hit a home run with Bill O’Reilly‘s “Legends and Lies.” CNN has recently found big audiences with “Weed,” “Finding Jesus,” and Bill Weir‘s “The Wonder List.” On weeknights, CNN has even devoted the 9 p.m. hour long filled by Larry King and then, less successfully, by Piers Morgan, to original programming.

Writing last fall in Fast Company, Rob Brunner described the transformation CNN has undergone under president Jeff Zucker:

When Zucker started, CNN had no original series. By next year, Zucker says, it will have 12 or 13 on the air, including the fugitive-finding hit docuseries The Hunt With John Walsh, which premiered in July with the highest 25-to-54 ratings for a debut program in CNN history, and shows helmed by Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe and Lisa Ling, former cohost of The View. “All of the news networks are finding that the genre is suffering from viewer erosion to the Internet and mobile,” says Derek Baine, a media analyst at SNL Kagan. “I think you’re going to see a lot of the news networks migrating more toward destination shows.”

“Destination shows” are programs that are very unlike news: they draw a wide, reliable audience, and they have a long shelf life. Air a two-month-old “Anderson Cooper 360,” and people will flip away to “House Hunters” in a heartbeat.

That’s why HLN airs highly-rated marathons of “Forensic Files,” some of which were produced in the 1990’s, and MSNBC devotes huge portions of its weekend “news” schedule to “Lockup” and “Caught on Camera.”

Bourdain“A show like ‘Parts Unknown’ holds up indefinitely, so CNN can profit off of reruns days or weeks or even years after it first airs, making it considerably more valuable than something that’s instantly out of date,” writes Fast Company‘s Brunner.

The gradual evolution of what cable news looks like on any given night reached the breaking point for Will Bunch, who wrote that after a long illness the news died on Saturday. Writing in the Philadelphia Daily News, Bunch said the fact that the networks were “pathologically unable to ditch their black-tie-dyed puffball coverage of the D.C. media’s so-called ‘nerd prom,’ truly felt like the respirator plug had finally been yanked, violently, from the wall.”

I was watching CNN, and you could feel the awkward. nervous tension. Even the host Poppy Harlow and the guests acknowledged that people in the CNN newsroom were watching Twitter and other social media, and they knew that the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore were all that folks wanted to talk about. But they just couldn’t break away from the their inane prattling about looming White House humor. At one point, I watched the comedian D.L. Hughley wonder if Obama would mention “what’s going on in Baltimore.” Even as CNN (and, again, its rivals) weren’t telling America “what’s going on in Baltimore.” Apparently the media was hoping that Obama would bail them out by bringing up the subject? That’s incredible.

Is it, though? When the overnight ratings come in, it will almost certainly have been the correct programming decision for networks that are, ultimately, in the audience-finding business. Would live coverage from Baltimore or Nepal draw a million viewers on a weekend?

Fortunately, the news didn’t die, it just found a new place to live. After all, Twitter wouldn’t have lit up with tweets about CNN missing the story if we didn’t know about the story thanks to Twitter. It got out there–just not on the “news networks.”

And even if you prefer your news from TV, cheer up. It’s Monday. The networks all do news on Monday, mostly.