Here’s How Soledad O’Brien Would Fix Cable News

By A.J. Katz Comment

If you follow politics or political media, and have signed onto Twitter at any point in the past 24 hours, you’ve likely seen a tweet or re-tweet from veteran TV newser Soledad O’Brien.

She is a frequent, passionate Twitter user, and has a substantial following to boot.

“Twitter is a personal thing for me,” O’Brien told TVNewser on Monday morning. “I highlight things that I think are incredibly unjust, certainly a lot of issues around race, a lot of issues around class, and then elevating the people who I think are saying very interesting things.”

O’Brien has remained an influential figure in media, despite having left CNN in 2013.

She’s currently the anchor of Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien, a Sunday show that’s syndicated by Hearst Television and produced at the Newseum in Washington D.C.

She’s also a correspondent for HBO’s Real Sports, is moderating a BET town hall next month, and she runs a production company, Starfish Media that’s dedicated to non-fiction programming and branded content.

TVNewser: How is Matter of Fact different from broadcast and cable news fare?

O’Brien: We’re doing really well in every demographic, and I think part of the reason is we just don’t have “talking heads” yelling at each other.  We look at policy, not politicians shouting, and I think that has helped us a lot. For example, when everyone else was talking about the border, we were actually talking to people on the border and we did an entire show from there. What you find is that people on both sides of the issue, whether they’re liberal or conservative, don’t always know what they’re talking about when it comes to the border! We did a look at a guy from San Diego, because the housing crisis and the policy around finding affordable housing down there is so terrible right now. Instead of just having an elected official rant about it or fight with someone about it, we went to San Diego and followed the guy, who has now moved from San Diego into Mexico. He commutes from Mexico to his job in San Diego because the housing has gotten so problematic.

I think what we’ve been able to do is focus on stories of policy and human beings, and less about elected officials who are posed just as an opposition. Also, when I think when you’re talking to real people, not politicians, you can get into the issues without always being so hostile. I just can’t watch shows where people are yelling at each other. I find it painful. I’ll ask people on the road: “Do you guys like that?” And they’ll say “No.” They hate it.

When the show started, we had about 195,000 households. We’re now on our third season and we’re up to just under one million, which is around 1.7 million viewers.

We’re a news magazine show, so we’re pre-taped. I think that because we started with a president who’s tweeting constantly and news is breaking constantly, that was problematic. But it ended up becoming a strength because we recognized we’re never going to do: “Oh my god, the president tweeted last night.” Instead, we’re going to say: “So what exactly is the first amendment?” “What is gerrymandering exactly?” “How should we think about what’s happening in climate change?” And we’re only going to have scientists on, and not have politicians fighting with other politicians.

I think that challenge of not being live has been a huge boon to us because we can slow it down and give context, which I think is really missing from a lot of the discussion. I think that has been represented in our numbers and our viewership.

We have a young audience compared to everyone else. We have a very diverse audience, and we’re very intentional about covering the diversity that is America, which is not just people of color but really stories of people from all around the country. I think that has also helped us a lot.

There are other broadcast and cable newsers who have made the move to syndication. You have a show on Hearst. Sharyl Attkisson has her’s on Sinclair.  Greta Van Susteren recently made the move to Gray. What are some of the advantages that being on syndication brings?

Journalism-wise, it’s not significantly different. The people I work with have all worked in a live news format. My executive producer Jillian O’Brien was a producer at CNN years ago. I don’t think there’s any huge difference there, but I think it is different in terms of how you think about content. For me, the hardest thing about syndication is you’re on in almost every market. We’re in 93% of the country. Normally, you’ll say: “Don’t watch them, watch us!” But here, we’re on every network. The standard “pitch” is not a “pitch.” You must find some other way to talk about what you’re doing, which has been interesting to me because everywhere I go people have seen the show. I think that a lot of the syndicators –Certainly for Hearst– they have all of these stations and they needed to make sure that they had programming that they wanted. They wanted to do a political show that made a lot of sense. But I haven’t found that—outside of not being live— some significant difference when it comes to syndicated versus not syndicated.

It’s not always easy to leave broadcast and cable news and remain an influential voice, but you have accomplished that. Do you ever miss having a cable news program?

I’m on cable all the time. I just did a Lifetime special. I’m doing a town hall for BET. I’ve been able to carve out with my career just picking and choosing the projects I want to do. Because my contract was never exclusive, I get to work on the projects that I want to. Really, my actual job is running a production company. But do I miss every morning TV news? 100% no. I don’t miss the grind of daily cable news, and that’s truly a grind. I’m sure if I were there, I’d be doing a similar thing – People yelling at each other.

I think what I loved about cable, and certainly what I loved about CNN was being able to get in the field and go cover breaking news. But there’s not that much of it anymore. Again, Matter of Fact was the show that went to cover what’s happening in the Midwest with the Native American tribes whose lands are underwater. There was no one else there.

I think what I’m doing doesn’t exist anymore, to some degree. When [Hurricane] Katrina happened, we camped out for months. Now, everyone’s covering the tweet of the day.

I’m really glad that I’m not doing that part, but I definitely miss being part of the daily news conversation.

You have been very critical of cable news in recent years. If you ran a channel, what’s the first thing you would want to change?

I think taking a lot of the lessons that have worked very well for us at Matter of Fact. You can do well when you just serve people and cover the news. Meaning that you tell stories through people. You land somewhere and say: “This is what’s happening here.” I understand that those nine people panels are financially worth doing for a network, but they’re awful and you learn nothing. They’re not helpful.

No. 1: Start reporting again. Go out into the field and have your people reporting from places.

Also, I think cable has really killed the role of “expert.” There’s no reason why someone who’s not an expert should be talking about science. Because you’re not a scientist, shut the hell up about science! If you want to talk politically about what science means to you as a politician, but not a politician weighing in on the science. That happens all the time and it should stop. In the middle of an abortion debate, very rarely do you have conversations with actual doctors and abortion providers. When you’re in the middle of a conversation about climate change, talk to climate scientists and have them be inserted into the conversation. It’s just appalling what’s happening.

Listen, I think it’s an extension of conversations about the black vote that don’t include black people, conversations about the female vote that don’t include women. These happen all the time. It’s just a matter of expertise. I think our show has done a very good job of holding ourselves accountable to that. Every single time we do a show, we ask ourselves: “Do we have the people who this story is about?” If we’re going to do something on the cost of prescription drugs, I want a mom who is buying insulin for her daughter to talk about her experience. It’s not going to be a bunch of elected officials telling me what they’re doing about it.

I would absolutely apply that to cable, and I think cable would be far better if they did that.

What are you working on right now at Starfish Media?

We have a number of verticals for the company. We do a fair amount of branded content. So many news organizations don’t cover the stories they used to that I think brands are actually trying to get into the business of the stories that used to be covered. Like, how do we elevate amazing people? TV news used to do that and it really doesn’t anymore.

We do a decent branded business for this documentary-style storytelling for brands.We do a fair amount of journalism for Matter of Fact and for some others. We do a number of docuseries.

We have a project we’re working on right now for HBO. I’m getting ready for this presidential candidate forum for BET, which will happen in about three weeks in South Carolina. We have 11 full-time people and about to add a number of interns for the summer. We’re swamped!

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